Despite the play’s reputation as a founding text of modern theater, the prospect of Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts as a contemporary entertainment is precarious at best. The premise—that a young man is infected with syphilis by his long-dead father—is medically unsound. Congenital syphilis can only be contracted from the mother, and the health of Mrs. Alving (Maureen Silliman), the play’s protagonist, is never questioned. Ghosts’ setup also hinges on the question of whether insuring an orphanage against fire reflects poorly on the faith of its director, Pastor Manders (Gregory North), a fine point of late-19th-century honor that’s likely to be lost on a 21st-century audience. Yet Ghosts persists, and the dramatic payoff in this outstanding production, directed by Jonathan Fox, overcomes any reservations about the material.
What Ibsen wrings from the familiar elements of tragedy—a cursed hero, ignorant of his fate and kinship; a devoted mother, doomed to be ineffectual; a gracious love interest, rendered unavailable by circumstance—commands attention through the development of five powerful characters, each a study in living consciousness in the process of becoming. Engstrand, as played by a marvelous Michael Rothhaar, blends the vitality of a Norwegian Falstaff with a habitual deceptiveness that’s enigmatic and fascinating. As Regina, Mrs. Alving’s young housekeeper, Jessica Spaw communicates her character’s inner dignity and hard-won self-respect, even as she plays all the angles in a complex situation. By the finale of this wild journey into life’s shadows, all doubts about the setting and premise dissolve in wonder at the larger implications of these five flawed people in search of life.