Every drama student or dabbler in student theatre has to love the works of Henrik Ibsen-it’s part of the job description, one of the things that goes with all-black ensembles, rehearsal halls, and dog-eared copies of Stanislavski’s An Actor Prepares.
It may seem like heresy, then, that despite being a recent drama grad and current drama teacher, I’ve never been a huge Ibsen fan. A Doll’s House is a good play, sure, but Peer Gynt? Pretentious, overly wordy nonsense. It’s hard to present Ibsen without it feeling dated, bogged down as his works are with theories of naturalism and other ideologies of his time, so my first reaction to student theatre’s general obsession with the playwright is usually a tortured groan.
Ghosts, perhaps Ibsen’s most controversial work, is also one of the hardest to stage. The script is full of long speeches and angst-ridden confessions; it verges on preachy and is dripping with Nietzschean philosophy. It takes a strong cast and a solid director to raise the play above its flaws-fortunately, the Trinity College Drama Society’s recent production had both.
First published in 1881, Ghosts is the story of Mrs. Helene Alving (Lada Darewych), the benefactress wife of the late Captain Alving, and her son, the self-described “prodigal son” Oswald (Nic Labriola). When Oswald returns home from many years of living an artist’s life abroad, his mother discovers he is suffering from a mysterious illness, and must decide whether to tell him the truth about his late father’s debauched life and the miserable façade of their marriage. Throw in a typical naturalist “the sins of the father are visited upon his son” thread, a few hints of incest, and a past betrayal and possible temptation by the local pastor (Joel Grothe), and it is no wonder the play was banned in England for over thirty years after its initial release.
First-time director John David Wood handled the risky material with subtlety and grace, choosing to keep his stage starkly set with a table, a few chairs, and little else, rightfully placing emphasis on the actors. His adaptation of the script was clear and almost managed to make Ibsen timeless; he thankfully avoided the tendency many who adapt Ibsen’s works have of turning the plays into soap operas for modern audiences.
While certain staging decisions were troublesome-why, for instance, were the actors so often speaking to each other from opposite ends of the stage, with backs or sides to the audience? And he would have been well served by teaching his actors to plant their feet rather than aimlessly wandering the stage during powerful monologues, but otherwise his directorial instincts were sound and made for an impressive debut.
It was the cast, though, that made this production truly compelling. Lada Darewych was nothing short of stunning as the long-suffering Mrs. Alving, with a performance that did everything right – faultless handling of the text, emotional resonance worthy of an actor twice her age, and an intangible ability to make the audience believe every word she uttered. Joel Grothe’s Pastor Manning played off Darewych’s Mrs. Alving with note-perfect timing, creating tension thick enough to cut with a knife, and, even more impressively, managing to hold it throughout the 100 minutes of the production.
Jeremy Hutton was also noteworthy as scallywag Jacob Engstrand, with stage presence that allowed him to effortlessly steal every scene he was in. As his daughter Regina, Jenn Hood lacked the depth and resonance of her castmates-her character’s sudden exit near the end of the play seemed abrupt, as she failed to articulate any motivation behind Regina’s shock and subsequent departure.
The only truly unfortunate thing about the TCDS’ production of Ghosts was its short run-a production of this caliber deserved to be seen by many, many more people than the somewhat sparse audiences who did have the privilege of seeing Ibsen’s play presented in a way few student theatre groups are capable of presenting it. If student theatre types must persist in their obsession with Ibsen, my only wish is that all productions could be as good as this one.