by Mike “Buzz” Buzzelli, ‘Burgh Vivant.
The ghosts of Ibsen’s “Ghosts” are metaphorical not ectoplasmic. They are the memories that haunt us. Those thoughts and feelings that creep sideways into our lives. For Helen Alving (Virginia Wall Gruenert), the ghosts surround her.
The widow Alving has chosen to build an orphanage in the memory of her late husband. For the grand occasion, her son, Oswald (Shaun Cameron Hall) returns to the Rosenvolde estate in Western Norway.
The play starts in a dubious manner. In theater, one usually fears a maid brandishing a feather duster. It invariably means that there’s going to be a huge info-dump at the top of the play, but Ibsen was a masterful craftsman. He eschews the cliché and goes for an abrasive confrontation between a father and daughter. He still manages to get out a good deal of exposition while the maid, Regina (Sarah Silk), argues with her devious dad, Jacob (Weston Blakesly), as she continues to clean.
A local religious leader, Reverend Manders (Ken Bolden) arrives to dot i’s and cross t’s. When he meets his old friend Helen, all hell breaks loose (the hell is metaphoric as well). There’s a whole thing about venereal disease that would have been believable in Ibsen’s time, but, now, not so much. It doesn’t matter. Just as you don’t have to believe in the Greek gods and goddess to enjoy “Medea” or “Antigone,” you don’t have to believe the antiquated notions in this play. Suffice to say, secrets and lies are revealed.
There’s a plethora of secrets and lies in “Ghosts.” Like Norway itself, play goes into some dark, dreary places. Don’t be afraid of it. It has a few, light moments. It’s commentary on morality is witty, subversive and downright genius. At one point, Mrs. Alving lays it all out to the uppity Reverend Manders, and I wanted to jump up and yell, “Stick it to him, girl!”
Ibsen exposes a barrage of hypocrisies with a Gatling gun of truth. It’s interesting to watch Bolden’s Reverend Manders twist and turn things so the outcome always favors the patriarchy. No matter where Alving goes, Manders counters her with pious platitudes all designed to keep women down.
The Off the Wall Theater has always championed female empowerment. Choosing to perform a play by a 19th Century Norwegian playwright would, on the surface, appear to stray from their mission, but it does not. This is Helen Alving’s story and Gruenert is firmly planted at the steering wheel (Gruenert adapted the work as well as stars in it). She adds the requisite gravitas to the meaty role of Helen Alving.
Director Simm Landres does a magnificent job of keeping things moving. The play runs 95 minutes with no intermission. Though the play is dialogue heavy, it moves briskly.
Silk does a marvelous job playing Regina, a woman determined to guide her own fate. Spoiler alert: the odds are stacked against her. Oswald straddles the line between man and boy, and Hall plays him deftly.
While the entire cast performs admirably, special mention must be made of Blakesly. He is riveting as Engstrand. The actor commands the stage as a corrupt and contemptible man who easily gives in to his baser natures. He’s a joy to watch. There is a moment when Silk’s Regina verbally lacerates him and you almost begin to feel sorry for the wretch, but he smiles wryly and you know he’s almost indestructible in his villainy.
Aside from a terrific and talented cast, Rich Preffer makes the most of the set. The scenic designer’s Victorian drawing room seems expansive in the intimate space. The gorgeously rendered wooden lattice set goes a long way to making the space feel bigger and broader than it is.
(“Ghosts” runs through March 14 at the Off the Wall, 25 W. Main Street, Carnegie, PA 15106. For more information, go to www.insideoffthewall.com )