By Chuck Graham
Is society about to come full circle? Has the illusion of obtaining more personal freedom by breaking so many rules of propriety finally run its course? Will the political conservatives’ promise of restoring order keep becoming more appealing to an ideologically fragmented America?
The Rogue Theatre is helping stimulate that conversation with its vigorously committed production of Henrik Ibsen’s “Ghosts.” Written in 1881 and immediately despised for its frank discussions of illicit sexual activity by uppity Mrs. Alving, “Ghosts” gets laughs these days for its old-fashioned ideals.
Ibsen hated the obsessively proper rules of his time. He felt people were forced to live lies and ignore the transgressions everybody made but nobody talked about. Which sounds a lot like how we remember the 1950s.
Theater historians assure us “Ghosts” in the 1880s was considered not only scandalous but worse, degenerate. All that Ibsen suggested was that if people were going to have extra-marital affairs, they should admit it. If fathers were going to have sex with their daughters, they should admit it. Of course, if husbands were going to abuse their wives, they should admit that, too.
A dominant theme of the dour Norwegian playwright was to dispute the idea that fulfilling one’s duty was far more important, and certainly more satisfying, than following one’s own personal desires. Ibsen believed this kind of rigidity was not about providing structure and stability, it was to create domestic prisons to keep everyone in their proper places.
The ghosts in his title are not the spooky kind, but more like haunting thoughts that won’t let go. Cynthia Meier plays Mrs. Alving as a woman tired of being stretched out for so many decades between fulfilling her womanly duties and suppressing what she felt certain were better ideas for handling her family’s affairs.
Her husband the late Capt. Alving was a dedicated philanderer to the day he died. Wanting to be sure he was remembered as a respected member of society, she slowly used up his fortune building an orphanage for their village in Norway. A strategy which also assured her own respectability.
Pastor Manders (Joseph McGrath) was the cold-blooded minister hiding behind the authority of the church, feeling righteous by making everyone else feel miserable. He counseled Mrs. Alving to sacrifice her own urges and live a responsible life.
As the play opens, Mrs. Alving is beginning to feel like her life of sacrifice has been wasted. Pastor Manders, in a philosophical power play, keeps trying to convince her it was the right thing to do.
Then Oswald Alving (Robert Anthony Peters), her grown son, makes a surprise visit home. Another of Mrs. Alving’s strategies was to keep Oswald in school in other cities so he would be out of the house and not corrupted by Capt. Alving’s hunger for fleshly pleasure.
Regina Engstrand (Jill Baker) is Mrs. Alving’s maid, raised as the daughter of Jacob Engstrand (Brian Taraz), a local workman.
David Morden, the director, achieves excellent balance in the cast members as each person gets at least one powerful scene and makes the most of it. Meier and McGrath are the central characters, playing their mind games in Act One while providing all the backstory that intensifies the clashes of personality that fill Act Two.
By the end, we look back on this portrait of decay and wonder if their lives would have been any better in a more forgiving society. Or in the past 125 years have we just exchanged one set of taboos for another set that will be seen as equally primitive in the year 2135?
“Ghosts” by Henrik Ibsen continues through Nov. 28 (no performance Thanksgiving Day) at the Rogue Theatre, 300 E. University Blvd. Performances are 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Before each show, 15 minutes of piano music by Edvard Grieg and Frederic Chopin, played by Dawn C. Sellers. Tickets are $25, with several discounts available. For details and reservations, visitwww.theroguetheatre.org, or phone 520-551-2053.