BY JOHN FLEMING
Times Performing Arts Critic
Ghosts started out as a scandal. "Unutterably offensive,'' "repulsive and degrading'' and "garbage and offal'' were just a few of the epithets flung down on Henrik Ibsen's play when it was first performed in London in 1891.
It's a truism that modern drama began with Ibsen — playwrights from George Bernard Shaw to Arthur Miller were all in his debt — and you can see why in the subject matter of Ghosts, which opened last weekend at Banyan Theater. The most sensational subjects the play deals with are incest and sexually transmitted diseases, but more important, Ghosts explores the lethal legacy of family secrets not aired until too late and the damage of clinging to duty and responsibility at the expense of freedom.
Banyan and director Gil Lazier deserve credit for presenting Ghosts, distinguished by Jeffrey W. Dean's attractive set and luminous lighting by Michael Pasquini, although the rainy Norwegian gloom is only suggested by the glow in the fireplace. Lazier, who previously directed Hedda Gabler and A Doll's House for the company, is single-handedly bringing Ibsen classics to the area.
The first act of the Banyan production is thrilling, as long-suppressed truths are told by Helene Alving (Jessica K. Peterson), and the family priest and business adviser, Pastor Manders (Peter Thomasson). Mrs. Alving is like Nora from A Doll's House if Nora had never slammed the door on her unhappy marriage but instead stayed with her husband. All her bitterness comes out in the drawing room encounter with Manders, who had insisted that she stand by her philandering husband. Mrs. Alving is dedicating the construction of an orphanage to her late husband, but the high-minded symbolism of it is a fraud.
Peterson and Thomasson volley back and forth brilliantly. "I almost believe we are ghosts, all of us,'' Peterson's intellectually enlightened matron says, lamenting not only how the sins of her debauched husband have been visited on their son, but also how the heavy hand of duty squelched her own ambitions. "It's not just what we inherit from our fathers and mothers that walks again in us — it's all sorts of dead ideas and dead beliefs and things like that.''
Yet the balance between the two seems somehow off, with Peterson's eloquent Mrs. Alving coming across as totally sympathetic while Thomasson's pastor is an insufferable prig. As expert as these actors are, there could be a more nuanced relationship between the characters, one that demonstrates more sharply the costs of her martyrdom and the balancing act the cleric must undertake. The translation of the play by Rick Davis and Brian Johnston includes some unfortunately slangy updating, such as Mrs. Alving declaring at one point that she would like to give Manders a hug, as if they were a pair of reality show contestants making up after a quarrel.
Gordon Myles Woods plays Osvald Alving, a young artist who has come home to the fjords of Norway from Paris because he is suffering from what his doctor described as "a kind of softening of the brain.'' Though not mentioned by name, Osvald has congenital syphilis inherited from his father (who likely infected Mrs. Alving), which was a plague in Ibsen's day.
The potential resonance of Osvald's syphilis with AIDS is a tantalizing possibility in a contemporary production of Ghosts. But the Banyan version sticks to a 19th century romantic conception of disease and Woods' tortured performance sinks the second act into melodrama. And Ibsen's plotting is labored: The fire that destroys the orphanage is awfully convenient.
Steven Clark Pachosa plays Jakob Engstrand, a wily rustic who seems to have Pastor Manders' number, even after Engstrand acknowledges a coverup involving his daughter, Regina (Gretchen Porro), who works as a maid for Mrs. Alving. Regina is the one person in the drama who might actually achieve freedom, once she learns the truth of her situation and heads out on her own.
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.