Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts, recently opened at the Odyssey Theatre, is not performed as frequently as some of the father of modernism’s other plays. It’s bleak, with only occasional moments of humor and (misplaced) optimism. Its power comes from its crystallization of Ibsen’s main themes: the shortcomings of marriage, the downside of heredity, the falseness of religion and the struggle of women to control their own destinies.
When Ghosts opens, the recently widowed Helen Alving (Pamela J. Gray) is working with her pastor, Rev. Manders (Barry Del Sherman), on the opening of an orphanage. Manders insists she should forego insurance, since to purchase it would give the scandalous impression that Helen doesn’t trust God to keep an orphanage safe. His pressure on her is disingenuous and defies logic, yet she agrees.
Helen’s son Oswald (Alex Barlas) has returned to Norway from Paris. He left home as a child because Helen wanted to remove him from his father’s influence; he has returned a man. Despite his long absence, Oswald developed his father’s promiscuity, on display in his pursuit of a willing housemaid, Regina (Viva Hassis Gentes). He also suffers increasingly from physical illness, the syphilis passed down to Oswald from his father.
The foreboding signs accrue, building toward a series of unfortunate events that undoes Helen’s decades-long efforts. She has survived her philandering and abusive husband and regained her son. But the groundwork has already been laid for damage beyond her imaginings.
For Ibsen, ghosts aren’t phantoms floating down hallways. They are the vestiges of the dead in the living—the after-effects of a parent’s dissolute ways, the inevitability of one tragic outcome mirroring another. The characters in Ibsen’s Ghosts are haunted, doomed by the actions of those who came before, and by their own behaviors, directly linked to their predecessors’.
The cast, including J.Stephen Brantley as Regina’s scheming father Jacob, beautifully portrays the well-defined characters. Alex Barlas as Oswald stands out for his passionate and terrifying performance.
This production is the Los Angeles premiere of an adaptation by British director Richard Eyre that cuts the action to a taut 90 minutes and updates some of the language; Bart DeLorenzo directs. Scenic Designer Frederica Nascimento, Scenic Artist Chris Bell and lighting designer Christine Ferriter have created a mesmerizing set, a brilliant melding of 19th and 21st centuries. It’s rife with symbolism and appropriately dark. Sound by John Zalewski and costumes by Lena Sands also contribute greatly to the high-quality production values.
Ibsen’s Ghosts is at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., through October 23. Show times are Saturdays at 8:00pm, Sundays at 4:00pm and Mondays at 8:00pm (dark Sept. 12). There are Friday performances on Oct. 7, 14 and 21 at 8:00pm. Tickets are $25-40, with the exception of Mondays, which are pay-what-you-will.