Whenever folks gripe about the dreary state of theater in our town -- which happens as often as you'd imagine -- I always point out that stage legends live and work here every day. I'm especially boastful about the fact that theater luminary Marshall Mason teaches at the local university, and that he occasionally entices his friend and frequent collaborator, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lanford Wilson, to join him in creating spectacular, Broadway-caliber productions.
Currently, the pair, co-founders of the celebrated Circle Repertory Theatre and one of America's most notable theatrical duos, is responsible for the striking translation of Henrik Ibsen's Ghosts at the Herberger Theater Center. Mason and Wilson have brought a team of former Circle Rep designers to the Arizona Theatre Company production, which turns Ibsen's tragicomedy into a stunning soaper without abandoning its spirit.
First produced in 1881, Ghosts shocked audiences with its story of the morally corrupt Alvings, whose matriarch unearths the family demons on the eve of the 10th anniversary of her late husband's death. We, and the people onstage, learn why the Alving family servant, Regina, can't marry Mrs. Alving's son, Oswald; why Oswald has returned home for good; why the Reverend Manders won't sleep in the Alving home; and the true identity of Regina's father and of the deceased "Honorable Captain Alving." Marital infidelity, incest, and venereal disease have never played so well.
Mason's rendition of Wilson's translation is fresh, skillful and deeply satisfying. The director stages the play with an unforced clarity, and achieves a contemporary feel without shifting time or place. That's due in large part to Wilson's brilliant use of casual language, a conceit accentuated by Mason's insight into the delivery of these words. Regina, a working-class girl, spits out bolder phrasing than her benefactress, the refined Mrs. Alving, whose speeches bristle with clipped consonants.
A topnotch cast movingly enacts a day in the life of the Alvings. Kelly McAndrew's Regina is so artlessly ruthless and manipulative, one can't help liking her. Jason Kuykendall is particularly affecting in the difficult role of Oswald, a desperate mass of vulnerability given to sore-headed rantings. Daren Kelly nails the dimwitted pomposity of Reverend Manders. And Ruth Reid's Helen Alving -- a sister of sorts to Ibsen's Nora from A Doll's House, who answers the literary question, "What if Nora had stayed?" -- battles her love for the good reverend with a steely resolve and fierce cynicism that are perfection. Only Bob Sorenson's comic turn as the manipulative inebriate doesn't ring true. Ibsen meant to counteract the gravity of his story with Jacob Engstrand's goofball posturing, but Sorenson's always-excellent clowning is a bit too nudge-and-wink to fit in here.
David Potts' set is both gorgeous and practical. The entire story takes place in the library of Mrs. Alving's house, but Potts' gauzy scrims allow us to see what's happening in other rooms, via shadows -- the ghosts of the title -- cast by Dennis Parichy's lush lighting. Parichy creates perfectly both the appearance of a blazing fire in the distance and the dim light of a rainy day.
In every translation of the play I've seen, it's left unclear whether Mrs. Alving will assist in her son's suicide -- an ending I much prefer to Wilson's conclusive (and slightly hokey) final moment here. But this tiny lapse does nothing to diminish what came before it. By the time we reach Oswald's climactic farewell, it's impossible not to be affected by his fate, or by this outstanding translation of one of Ibsen's most important works.
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