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Flaccid ‘Ghosts’ brought to life by Secret’s stars

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“Ghosts” isn’t one of Ibsen’s best plays.

It’s too talky, both too much to the point and evasive. One can understand the evasive part, since he was writing about inherited venereal disease back in 1882. At the same time, the play is too much to the point because Ibsen wanted his Norwegian audiences to know just what he thought of their dull, plodding, dutiful provincial morality; to Ibsen, Norway was one big hick town ruled by the likes of the prudish Reverend Manders. Norwegians reacted with appall. But the Secret Theatre’s recent production is superb and in the end devastating.

The action takes place at the Alving estate, presided over by the noble Helen Alving. The play begins with her maid, Regina, resisting the blandishments of her father, the somewhat dissolute Mr. Engstrand. A young lady who sprinkles French words among what the audience must take on faith as provincial Norwegian, she wants little to do with this man. The man who she does want something to do with, Helen’s son Oswald, has just returned form the continent. That Oswald wants something to do with Regina would have been lovely, but both of these young people will learn that their love simply can’t be.

In the meantime, Mrs. Alving has built an orphanage in honor of a husband who was a dissolute brute, but we learn that the real reason she spent all her late husband’s money was so her son couldn’t inherit it — in her mind even Captain Alving’s money was contaminated. She won’t even have the place insured, she tells Pastor Manders.

The actors at the Secret Theatre need bigger audiences than they generally get. There were only four people in the audience the night the reviewer went, but that didn’t stop the actors from giving great performances. Shannon Pritchard is a lovely Regina, at once formal and somewhat feral; the look in her eyes when she beheld Oswald spoke volumes.

Alex C. Ferrill is slappable as the stuffy Pastor Manders, a man so steeped in conventional hypocrisy that he doesn’t even believe himself to be a hypocrite. Stephen Sherman tempts you to despise Oswald as a clone of his father until you find out, with horror, what’s really going on with him. Tom Cox’s Mr. Engstrand is probably the most complex role, though he has the least time on stage. He comes across as both a roué and a man capable of doing the right thing. Alexandra Cremer’s Mrs. Alving is marvelous as a woman who insists on holding on to every scrap of dignity and protecting her son at all costs, and who then sees everything crumble to ashes around her, literally in the case of her orphanage.

Praise should also go to director Odalis Hernandez and lighting designer Noel MacDuffie for illuminating a minimalist but effective set, and Tom Kleinert’s costumes are just right (“I want that dress,” one audience member murmured when she saw Mrs. Alving’s lace gown.)

The Secret Theatre has made a heartbreaking success of one of Ibsen’s lesser plays.

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