Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Connecticut and the Berkshires

Williamstown Theatre Festival
Review by Fred Sokol | Season Schedule

Also see Fred's review of Before the Meeting

Uma Thurman
Photo by Jeremy Daniel
Henrik Ibsen's Ghosts, with a new translation by Paul Walsh, continues at the Williamstown Theatre Festival through August 18th. Director Carey Perloff tries to mount an imaginative production and to some extent she succeeds. Still, the text for this work does not approach, for example, that for A Doll's House. Having luminous Uma Thurman play Mrs. Helene Alving, the focal character, is most fortunate for everyone participating in or watching the show.

In late 19th century western Norway, people have gathered when an orphanage in memory of Captain Alving (Helene's husband) is soon to open. Pastor Manders (Bernard White) is one of those in attendance. He and Helene share a past closeness which is revisited in dialogue. Her son Oswald (Tom Pecinka) comes on the scene and Mrs. Alving wants to leave him her money. She will be there for him.

Oswald is an artist who knows that, through illness, his lifespan is limited. He has designs on Regina Engstrand (Catherine Combs). Pretty and well-dressed, she is much more than simply the family maid. Mrs. Alving reveals that Regina is related to Oswald, but he does not much care. Regina's father Jakob (Thom Sesma) rounds out the cast. He is disheveled and, from the beginning, absolutely unappealing.

Mrs. Alving is strong. She always stands straight, but she is beset with problems. She does not cower. During the second act, she admits that she "goes around battling ghosts." The actress is in control of her character. The action shifts to Oswald as the performance moves along and Mrs. Alving sees that her role must change. She knows that both her son and Regina should be informed; they need to understand details of the past.

For a while, Mrs. Alving protects her husband's reputation even if Captain Alving was evidently not the most moral of men. For some time, she seeks to shield who he was. The woman is smart, stalwart, and increasingly clear thinking. She very well could reveal more than originally intended.

Director Perloff stations musician David Coulter behind window-like panels. It is not clear why, exactly, Coulter should be visible, but the composer's presence is neither obtrusive nor distracting. Dane Laffrey has designed an intriguing set and supplies period-appropriate wardrobe for the show. Coulter, playing on a large drum and perhaps a xylophone, creates ethereal, otherworldly accompaniment. For the most part, the proactive music adds tone.

Mrs. Alving hopes that ghosts from her past have been exorcised. Not so. Eventually, she is faced with unenviable choices regarding her son's predicament. Williamstown is fortunate to have Uma Thurman, originally from Amherst, Massachusetts, as its star for this show. While almost all actors include significant performance notes in their program bio, her distinctive note reads as follows: "Uma Thurman is a Film, Theater, and Television actress." Thurman evidences a profound grasp of her character. She is oftentimes expressive but not in an overly demonstrative fashion. During one instance, as she silently listens to another cast member, she reacts with facial recognition, and her eyes are revelatory. This is studied work by an actress whose craft is paramount.

This Ghosts is not consistently riveting, but its leading lady is just that. Thurman becomes Mrs. Alving, a woman in contrast to Nora in A Doll's House. Nora slams a door and leaves while Mrs. Alving stays. Each is empowered.

Ghosts, through August 18, 2019, at Williamstown Theatre Festival, 1000 Main St., Williamstown MA. For tickets, call 413-458-3253 or visit