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Theatre Review by Cindy Pierre

Joanne Camp and John Behimann
Photo by Erin Beth Donnelly .

If one were to ask Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen what he thought of duty and suffering, he would probably say, in similar terms, that they were locked in an unhealthy but supportive marriage by default. Duty, in the form of what he would call religious oppression, was often the topic of his dramas. He spent a good portion of his writing career railing against Victorian propriety and values. 1881's Ghosts was no exception. The Pearl Theatre Company brings us this scathing social commentary with an intermingling of passion and restraint, but also with an occasional lapse in entertainment value.

Mrs. Alving (Joanne Camp) has just built an orphanage in her late husband's memory. Pastor Manders (Tom Galantich), an old friend and advisor to the Alving family, will deliver the dedication speech. His relationship to Mrs. Alving throughout her marriage has always been one full of reprimand for her, and pardon for her husband, a wealthy man with a great reputation. Mrs. Alving reveals to Pastor Manders that her marriage was a sham upheld by the need to be obedient by the rules of Victorian morality. Her husband constantly cheated on her, and rather than save herself from the pain, she stayed behind to endure it as there was no other alternative. She elected to save her son Osvald (John Behimann) instead, sending him off to boarding school to strip him of his father's "dissolute" influence. But she could not save him from his father's sins.

The result of one of Captain Alving's many sins is Regina Engstrand (Keiana Richard), his illegitimate daughter from a former affair with a house servant. Instead of exposing her husband, Mrs. Alving takes Regina in as her maid. Engstrand (TJ Edwards), the man who married Regina's mother and raised her as his own, looms nearby to never let Regina forget about her true roots and to seize the opportunity to use the truth to his advantage.

Ghosts doesn't come alive until Osvald gets home for his cherished father's memorial. The first half hour creeps by unremarkably, lacking momentum and the power to engage. Harry Feiner's set of grays and blues is beautiful and reflective of the downcast atmosphere of the house and the circumstances, but the opening sequences between Regina and Engstrand are inadvertently dull. Richard is painfully out of her league with the rest of the cast, and the fact that this is her premier performance with The Pearl Theatre Company shows. Although an opportunist like her father (but to a milder degree, and by dna, not by circumstance), Edwards runs rings around her in the scenes that they share because she has yet to fully grasp that. He's quite the pimp, but she's not yet a prostitute. Also, the lack of projection of her voice is magnified by his presence. Galantich is just wily and self-righteous enough to entertain you, but not revile you. Behimann, given to histrionics, sometimes overacts, but you'll appreciate these eruptions of emotion to cut through the dryness of the production. I acknowledge that dryness is the very climate under which this story lives and is true to the script, but the lack of sound effects not only hushes the audience's excitement about the performance, it also invalidates the dialogue. Rain, both visual and auditory, is sorely missed from the production but frequently mentioned in the dialogue.

However, sticking to the script and era is not always boring. As Mrs. Alving, Camp is a marvel, carrying about with a wonderful restraint in her poise, regard, and the inflections of her tone. Under Regge Life's direction, Camp embodies decorum and Victorian inhibition. This is not an easy task given the flights of anger and passion that are happening around her and indirectly, because of her. In this production, she proves why she has had such a long-standing relationship (this is her 50th production) with the Pearl Theatre Company. She is infinitely watchable, and they are lucky to have her.

This Ghosts is a good rendition of Ibsen's play, but it needs more drive. The pursuit of happiness as an immoral agenda is well represented here, and Ibsen lobs a lot of sarcasm at that notion in this piece. Although today's theatre is riddled with anti-religious sentiments and trumps the pursuit of freedom as a virtue, Ghosts created quite a scandal during Ibsen's day for championing those same sentiments. Of course, Ibsen wrote it with a desire to cause sensation. Not only was it unheard of to reject society's standards, but it was especially revolutionary to discuss a venereal disease, congenital syphilis, in a drama. Granted, syphilis is never named in Ghosts, only implied. Mrs. Alving's decision to shield her son from his father's proclivities proved to be more detrimental than helpful. Thus, the virtue of sacrifice not only proves to be evil, but it is also negated here. Whether you agree with Ibsen's ideas or not is irrelevant. But he certainly made a case for them, however extreme in Ghosts. Now it's up to the Pearl Theatre Company to keep us engrossed from beginning to end.

Through March 30
Pearl Theatre Company, 80 St Marks Place, eastern extension of 8th Street between First and Second Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Pearl Theatre Company

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