Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre is exploring some interesting territory with its latest offering, Ibsen’s Ghosts. The production, which stars stage and screen actor Jane Alexander, adds a decidedly contemporary spin to this 1881 play.
Set in the early 1980s, the adaptation by Edwin Sherin focuses on Helen Alving. The widow of the wealthy Captain Arthur Alving, Helen welcomes her artist son home to the fold. All the while she is preparing a grand tribute for her late husband with family friend and minister Franklin Manders. These two occurrences are the catalysts for the revelation of many issues hiding below the surface, including adultery, paternity and AIDS.
Sherin, who also serves as the director of this production, has created an adaptation that can only be described as aggressive. In fact, it may be a bit too aggressive. The tone of the piece lacks suspense. It is easy to see what the play is building up to, and that lessens the dramatic effect of the ending.
Nonetheless, the piece is very well cast. Jane Alexander does a superb job as the secretive but loving Helen. She exhibits a perfect mixture of wryness and sensitivity. She works extremely well with her fellow actors and seems to have a special kind of chemistry with Ted Van Griethuysen.
Van Griethuysen is a major presence in DC theater and it is no surprise that he once again displays his indomitable talent in this production. His Franklin Manders is an open book, and the audience can easily get a sense of who this character is just a few short minutes after he takes the stage.
Tony Award nominee André De Shields paints a sympathetic portrait of the rather unlikable Jacob Strand. De Shields, who is known for his musical performances in shows such as The Wiz and The Full Monty, proves that his skill does not only fall under song and dance. He displays a great range and a knack for timing.
The two younger members of the cast, Noel True and Alexander Pascal, are also quite good. As Gina, Ms. True is forceful without overplaying the role. Her overall performance is strong, but her finest moments are when she is playing against Mr. De Shields. Alexander Pascal’s Oswald is simply heartbreaking. He is all emotion and energy. In the end, Pascal’s performance is extremely jarring.
This adaptation of Ghosts is not for the faint of heart. It is an uncomfortable production, but parts of it are effective. The real attraction here is the cast. Despite the play’s weaknesses, the cast provides a full and interesting experience.
Ghosts runs at The Shakespeare Theatre through July 27th. For ticket information, call 202-547-1122 or visit www.shakespearedc.org.
Cast List (in order of appearance)