On May 5, Tacoma’s New Muses Theatre Company opened its production of Henrik Ibsen’s classic play “Ghosts.” The play is now running in an alternating schedule with Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House.” This is a chance for Tacoma audiences to see live stagings of two of the greatest plays by one of the giants of theater. The Norwegian playwright Ibsen is credited with bringing “realism” to the stage, thus bringing modern theater into being.
While not directly related, “A Doll’s House” and “Ghosts” both portray individuals trying to navigate the moral rules and social mores of status-conscious middle class society. Ibsen said that after Nora (the self-emancipated protagonist of “A Doll’s House), he had to create Mrs. Alving, the central character of “Ghosts.”
We encounter Mrs. Alving as a middle-aged widow with a grown son. She is a woman that had once tried to flee a bad marriage to an alcoholic, philandering man but was persuaded – by Pastor Manders – that it was her duty to go back to her husband. “Ghosts” is thus a portrait of a woman that played by the rules of morality and did what was considered to be correct and good in the eyes of society.
The result was that Mrs. Alving was condemned to unhappiness. She had to devote the rest of her life building an edifice of falsehoods about her husband and her marriage, largely to protect her son from the truth. A self-confessed coward, Mrs. Alving was never able to escape and must continue to maintain her house as a web of lies long after her flawed husband has died.
We encounter the Alving family on the eve of the dedication of an orphanage that Mrs. Alving and Pastor Manders are about to dedicate in memory of the deceased Mr. Alving. All of the falsehoods are about to come home to roost.
The New Muses production features a rock solid cast beginning with Carrie Schnelker’s riveting performance as Mrs. Alving. Schnelker commands the stage with a stately presence. She is at times imperious and at times vulnerable.
Manders is played by John Kelleher, a dynamic actor who breaths life into the role of a man of the cloth who, while earnest, is too beholden to rules of propriety, is a little too willing to take others at their word, and is somewhat overly concerned about his public reputation.
New Muses founder and managing artistic director Niclas Olson is the only actor working in both “A Doll’s House” and “Ghosts.” In the latter he plays Oswald, an artist and the son of the Alvings. Oswald has returned from the sunny parts of Europe to wet and dreary Norway where he is in the midst of a malaise. Mrs. Alving has kept Oswald away from the family in order to protect him from his father’s influence. Tragically, however, Oswald proves to be his father’s son.
Two other complex characters round out the cast. Monica Lorin plays the vivacious, bright and dutiful maidservant, Regina. Engstrand, the crippled (both physically and spiritually) carpenter is played by Eric Cuestas-Thompson.
Where “A Doll’s House” ended with a sense of liberation and the hope of fresh beginnings, “Ghosts” is haunted by an air of doom. At one point in the play Mrs. Alving laments that dead ideas and useless beliefs are passed from one generation to the next long after they have outlived their usefulness.
“These dead ideas and dead beliefs are not alive in us,” says Mrs. Alving, “but they’re rooted there all the same, and we can’t rid ourselves of them. I’ve only got to pick up a newspaper and I see them between the lines. There must be ghosts all over the country – as countless as grains of sand. And we are, all of us, so pitifully afraid of the light.”
New Muses’ plays are performed in the wonderfully intimate setting of the Dukesbay Theater, inside the same building (upstairs) as the Grand Cinema. “Ghosts” and “A Doll’s House” run through May 22. For show schedules and additional information visit www.newmuses.com.