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Photograph by Dave Lepori

Ibsen Facto: Jorge Rubio, Deborah Fink (center) and Wilma Bonet confront the sins of the past in 'Ghosts.'

Dead Secrets Walking

San Jose Stage Company delves into the family hell of Ibsen's 'Ghosts'

By Richard von Busack

TRYING to re-create the impact Henrik Ibsen's Ghosts had on audiences of the 1880s is like trying to re-create the experience of a bomb blast by having an actor hollering, "Boom!" The play is not quite a social bomb anymore, though the problems Ibsen diagnosed are still afoot. The same hypocrisy and snobbery stalk the land. Clergymen still rub the salt of religion into the wounds of society. And Ghosts still enthralls 120 years later. This kind of theatrical staying power is a worthy way for the San Jose Stage Company to celebrate its 20th year.

Director Tony Kelly's production is updated to the early 1960s, chosen probably because the era saw the dawn of a social revolution. The title refers to the dead hand of tradition circumscribing the lives of the Alving family, which defies its surface respectability with hidden secrets.

The Parisified young master Osvald (Jorge Rubio), a neurotic lounger, has returned to the rainy provinces from whence he came. Ill health has brought him back; just how bad his health is, we are soon to learn. Rubio is properly flamboyant, but the text says that Osvald modeled himself on a father who was supposedly famous for public rectitude. I wish Rubio had worn Osvald's decadence a little more like an affectation he'd recently donned, like the silk smoking jacket he swans around in. The way Rubio enters, he's already halfway to Baudelaire Hell.

This young cockerel's mother, Mrs. Alving (Wilma Bonet), is on the verge of dedicating a monument to her late husband: an orphanage financed under the direction of her pastor, Manders (Warren Keith). Even though there's seemingly no way to make a profit out of an orphanage, the situation is fishy.

Hovering nearby are the maid Regina (Deborah Fink), who is scheming a way out of domestic service, and her father, a limping reprobate named Jakob Engstrand (Randall Kane). Over the course of some 24 hours, a lot of dark family troubles, from incest to hereditary syphilis, get exposed.

Mrs. Alving flaunts her worldliness, and Pastor Manders may have more than just a pastoral interest in her. Still, Manders is a prig, and Keith renders him as a fine balding fussbudget. Note the cleverness of the set decoration, which goes in for a little Danish modern and a little French provincial. Mrs. Alving's untidy piles of books include everything from Betty Friedan to Henry Miller and--a nice contemporary understanding of the kind of stuff this rich widow would have been reading in the 1880s--cheap sub-Harlequin paperbacks.

It must seem that these scenes of protest--Alving's budding humanism vs. the church's dank authoritarianism--constitute the play's continuing relevance. The English title is supposedly not what Ibsen had in mind; the Norwegian title is more like "Those Who Walk Again." Those who live long enough will see cycles of revolution and reaction. The dead idea that religiously enforced family values will solve all our social problems keeps coming back to haunt the world

This rendition tends to congratulate modern patrons on how far we've come. Not to harp on the difference between 1880 and 1960, but the scourge of syphilis is a hard thing for modern audiences to imagine. The tragic end would be more justified if we had an understanding of exactly the kind of disease syphilis once was.

Shortly after the opening of Ghosts, Ibsen was caricatured in a cartoon as a man frightening an audience with a live snake. The snake seems a little like a joke-shop rubber serpent today because of Kelly's updating. The mannerisms of this "God is my golf partner" pastor are different from those of a Norse pastor in Ibsen's day. When Keith's Manders frets about couples living in sin, he invites the audience to chuckle. The power of these old-fashioned priests--just like the terrible power of syphilis--is lost on today's crowd. This production is an entertaining and powerful drama, but it misses some of the real dreadfulness of oppression, the sense of horror at seeing a ghost walk.


Ghosts, a San Jose Stage Company production, runs through Feb. 23 at the Stage, 490 S. First St., San Jose. Tickets are $16-$32. (408.283.7142)


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From the February 6-12, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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