Ibsen's Ghosts continues to haunt in Seattle Rep's timely rendition

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Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and David Strathairn in rehearsal for Ghosts at Seattle Rep —  Photo by Sayed Alamy
Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and David Strathairn in rehearsal for Ghosts at Seattle Rep — Photo by Sayed Alamy

In December of 1881, a Norwegian playwright named Henrik Ibsen published a work that so scandalized English sensibilities that the Daily Telegraph wrote it off as "literary carrion" and "an open drain: a loathsome sore unbandaged." The play in question, Ghosts, survived these outlandish criticisms and is now revered as a dramaturgical masterpiece.

Director Carey Perloff — fresh off 25-year tenure as artistic director of the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco — is finally bringing Ghosts to the Seattle Rep from April 1 to May 1 after unfortunate, prolonged delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

David Strathairn, David Coulter, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, and Thom Sesma in rehearsal for Ghosts at Seattle Rep — Photo by Sayed Alamy  

A timely play from the 19th century
Perloff admitted that she has been "sort of obsessed with this play for decades." While it was written over a century ago, she contends that its subject matter is even more relevant to modern audiences. She saw a few iterations in the '80s, when "it was very often explored with the metaphor of AIDS, which was a very potent way to look at the play."

She described the play as dealing with "the way in which the ghosts that we thought were buried keep coming back to haunt us," and a meditation on inheritance: "how we relate to our parents, and what we do and don't think we've inherited from our families."

Ghosts explores the struggles of a widow, Helen Alving, grappling with her husband's infidelity, as well as the lengths she goes to protect her son, Oswald, from the truths of their family's past. It's also "about a young man with an inherited disease [syphilis] that he has inherited from his father. But it's never made that literal — it is sort of about wrestling with one's own legacy," said Perloff.

"One of the things we explored with Oswald is the question of shame, and how one of the most awful things that happened during the AIDS crisis was how men were shamed for having contracted this disease, when people didn't really know how the disease was contracted. Oswald goes through these terrible feelings of shame about something that it turns out is not his fault at all," she continued.

Another facet of the play that strikes Perloff as particularly timely is Ibsen's interrogation of secrecy in the face of potential public scorn. "Another thing it is about is public opprobrium," she explained. "We think Twitter created this, but in fact, this play is about this pastor who is so terrified to be vilified in the public press that he makes terrible choices in his life out of that kind of fear."

Ghosts' 19th-century ethical quandaries over civic discourse can easily be seen as a precursor to social media, internet shaming, and limits on the freedom of interpretation of language in online spaces today. Anxiety over how others will react to personal truths is nothing new.

The uncanny relevance of a controversial old play in the present is something Perloff thinks is worth talking about. "We are at a funny moment with our theatrical culture," she said. "We are very suspicious of plays written in earlier times, and we think they don't really represent the way that we see the world — and of course, in many ways, they don't, and the world has changed."

But, she countered, "I think the classical canon really opens our eyes to the conflicts of our own times in a way that we can't really see ourselves."

At risk of, and in embrace of, sounding clichéd, history really does repeat itself. And interrogating past understandings of ethics through art can lend fresh eyes to situations that seem more unique than they may actually be.

David Strathairn in rehearsal for Ghosts at Seattle Rep — Photo by Sayed Alamy  

The production
In terms of production, Perloff spoke nothing but highly of the cast, creative team, and process of bringing Ghosts from San Francisco to Seattle audiences. She has worked for years with translator Paul Walsh, an Ibsen scholar that can translate Norwegian into English vernacular for modern audiences with ease. He assisted the cast in understanding every facet of the play, down to random questions like "What would a pastor have worn at this time, in this place?"

The actors are both local to Seattle and visiting. Seattleite Albert Rubio plays Oswald, and outside of Ghosts works at Cornish College and on a personal project in which he is translating the experiences of AIDS survivors into solo pieces. Actress Nikita Tewani plays Regina Engstrand and worked with Perloff in the past on A Thousand Splendid Suns at the Rep.

All the cast boast impressive theater histories and are excited to finally bring Ghosts to the stage, following Zoom auditions and postponements since the show's original 2020 dates.

Perloff expressed boundless joy at the prospect of a live show, and reasonably so. As she said, quite succinctly, "Theatre is about bodies, you know, human bodies in space. That's where people are vulnerable. To be able to come back to that is amazing."

Tickets for the show are available at https://www.seattlerep.org/ and range from $17 to $91. It runs April 1 to May 1