The Banyan Theater Company has built its reputation by bringing us worthwhile theater during the long, hot summer days, including classics of theatrical literature we seldom see elsewhere. They continue that tradition with the current product of Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts, now onstage at the Cook Theatre.
The Banyan has given us Ibsen before, with Hedda Gabler and A Doll House; both productions were directed with skill by Gil Lazier, who also helms Ghosts with distinction. The storyline, for those unfamiliar with this landmark 1881 play, concerns Mrs. Alving (Jessica K. Peterson), who with her town’s spiritual leader, Pastor Manders (Peter Thomasson), is about to open an orphanage as a memorial to her late husband, who was widely respected in the community.
But as the Act I conclusion lets us know (in a revelation that’s still a spellbinder onstage), her husband was in fact a drunken philanderer who made her life miserable for more than 20 years after Manders persuaded her to stay with him. The conventional, scandal-shy pastor is shocked, but there are more surprises to come, relating to her artist son, Osvald (Gordon Myles Woods), who’s just returned home from Paris, and her maid, Regina (Gretchen Porro), whose relationship to the Alving family and to the man who raised her, carpenter Jakob Engstrand (Steven Clark Pachosa) is pivotal to the plot.
Jessica K. Peterson and Peter Thomasson in the Banyan Theater Company’s Ghosts. Photo by Gary Sweetman It sounds like melodrama, but in Ibsen’s hands it is much more than that. Even from today’s perspective it’s possible to realize just how scandalizing Ghosts must have been to audiences when first produced. For it’s not just that illegitimacy, syphilis, infidelity and incest are all mentioned here; it’s that Ibsen’s scathing viewpoint condemns these and similar evils as inevitable byproducts of the “dead” ideals and social conventions that place hypocrisy above honesty. Audiences at the Banyan may be surprised by how much humor (albeit of a bitter, satiric nature) there is to be had in Ghosts.
The most obvious example of that is displayed in the character of Pastor Manders, of course, and Thomasson makes a fine fool of him (although not one completely without sympathy) as his pompous pronouncements about duty turn to ashes before his eyes when the truth about the Alvings’ marriage becomes clear. But there’s also ample comedy in Jakob, memorably portrayed by Pachosa as a smarmy bootlicker who nevertheless turns out to be far cleverer than Manders when it comes to a moneymaking scheme.
Although she stumbled occasionally over a line on opening night, Peterson (who gave a fine performance in the Banyan’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane last season) was firm in her characterization and ran the gamut from Mrs. Alving’s hard-won resignation to panic and horror as Osvald’s plight drives her to desperation and a powerful final scene. She and Woods make a convincing mother-son pair. And while Porro’s Regina may not be quite as buxom as we imagine her to be from others’ dialogue, she’s effective in proving to be the true daughter of both of her fathers.
Ghosts continues through July 11; for ticket info call 552-1032 or go to banyantheatercompany.com.