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Theater Review

Secrets and lies, Ibsen-style

A respectable household comes undone in A Noise Within's brisk

March 27, 2009|Charlotte Stoudt

Everybody lies. A century before this truism landed mentalists and misanthropic doctors in television's Top 10, Henrik Ibsen anatomized social hypocrisy and its devastating effects. In A Noise Within's new production of "Ghosts," it's outrage, not heartbreak, that registers most emphatically in this classic drama of a mother and son trying to break free of a shattering family secret.

Mrs. Alving (Deborah Strang) is about to dedicate an orphanage in honor of her esteemed late husband, much to the pious satisfaction of Pastor Manders (Joel Swetow), her confidant during the troubled first year of her marriage. Then the lady of the house drops a bomb on the idealistic reverend: Her husband's philandering never ended. On the contrary, he grew increasingly debauched, and their outwardly respectable life was a sham. But it is Mrs. Alving who is about to receive the real shock. Unbeknown to her, Captain Alving passed on syphilis to their son, Oswald (J. Todd Adams), now home from his bohemian life in Paris. He must tell his mother, who has sacrificed everything to protect him from the wages of his father's sins, that the disease is starting to destroy his mind.

No wonder an early critic called the play "a dirty deed done in public" -- even contemporary audiences are taken aback by Ibsen's ability to imbue genteel settings with an aura of violence. But what keeps this moody Norwegian's work from slipping into pure soap is the surgical precision with which he dissects his characters' passions: All love is a form of need, all benevolence a mask for manipulation. And few artists have cast such an ironic eye on mendacity while briskly delivering the narrative goods. "Ghosts" comes in under two hours, but it's operatic in emotional scale.

Director Michael Murray moves his cast around Angela Balogh Calin's elegant living room set as if in a fevered dance; this is as aerobic an Ibsen as I've ever seen. But though the pace is refreshing, it sometimes obscures the uncanny heart of the play. "We're haunted by the ghosts of our mothers and fathers -- and by all kinds of old, dead ideas and dead beliefs that are piled up inside us," murmurs Mrs. Alving, in Murray's fluid adaptation. "They're in there, still quietly breathing." The play's silences hold as much power as its explosive arguments. Yet as the drama reaches its peak, the production feels overstated, even melodramatic, marring what is surely one of the most devastating final scenes in all of Western drama.

Still, there is plenty to enjoy here, from Ibsen's bracing social comedy (Mrs. Alving and the pastor debate the safety of various mortgage options) to the effective design, including Susan Gratch's atmospheric lights and Benjamin Haber Kamine's evocative score. Strang captures the passion of a woman awakening to her own truth, while Adams presents a hunted Oswald, desperately grabbing onto life even as he feels it slipping away. But the past is just too strong.

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'Ghosts'

Where: A Noise Within, 234 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale

When: 8 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday. Ends May 9.

Tickets: $40 to $44; (818) 240-0910, Ext. 1

Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes

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