Randy Harrison and Mia Dillon in Ghosts
(© Jaime Davidson)
Randy Harrison and Mia Dillon in Ghosts
(© Jaime Davidson)
Back in 1881, when Henrik Ibsen wrote his daring play Ghosts -- now being presented in a somewhat problematic production at the Berkshire Theatre Festival -- sexually transmitted syphilis (the taboo topic that the script dances around without ever naming) was a literal embodiment of the wages of sin. All but guaranteeing a slow and agonizing death, it was a punishment meted out to libertines and their undeserving spouses and offspring alike.

Intent as he was on blowing the lid off this scandalous state of affairs, Ibsen can be forgiven a certain tendency toward histrionics. Fortunately, the felicitous new translation, by director Anders Cato and dramaturg James Leverett, has curbed this penchant somewhat, even if the language occasionally verges on the overly contemporary. Cato's direction, however, undercuts his other accomplishment.

Also cooling the atmosphere is Lee Savage's minimalist cube of a drawing room, set in keen contrast to the ornate Victorian furniture it contains, and its sleek glass doorway dripping with seemingly interminable rain. In an intriguingly subtle allusion to the title, you'll occasionally spot a nuclear family or a lone boy lurking in the dark beyond, ghosts of the past which has given us this present, a small Norwegian town where Jakob Engstrand (blustery, believable Jonathan Epstein), is wrapping up work on an orphanage which Mrs. Alving (Mia Dillon) has built as an ironic memorial in honor of her dissolute late husband, Captain Alving.

Also on hand are Regine (a well-cast Tara Franklin), who is Engstrand's daughter and Mrs. Alving's maid -- and a contemptuous scold rankled by her station in life. Her father wants her to grace his dream project, a hotel for sailors; but she's having none of it, having set her sights on Osvald (the fine Randy Harrison), the young master of the house recently returned from Paris.

This opening segment bristles with promise, but it's soon deflated by a long colloquy between Mrs. Alving and her spiritual advisor (and long-held crush) Pastor Manders (David Adkins). It is essential that Manders represent a dour, puritanical tradition valuing work over pleasure and duty over happiness. Adkins may talk the talk -- regularly prompting seemingly solicited hoots from the audience -- but he stands apart from the role. Rather than harsh and reproving, he's as glib and smarmy as a used car salesman, and the balance of the interchange suffers as a result.

Moreover, Mrs. Alving is presented to us, textually, as a proto-feminist, a woman whose horrendous marriage has prompted her to reassess the status quo and begin to adopt more progressive views. She's wised up and angry. However, Dillon -- perhaps constrained by Adkins' mild-mannered Manders -- comes across as simpering and indecisive.

Still, the play, superannuated as it may seem, is actually beautifully constructed. Everyone has secrets to trade on and attendant agendas. Yet, by allowing the work's central struggle -- between Manders' insistence on propriety and Mrs. Alving's long-suppressed thirst for truth -- to be reduced to a mild debate, Cato's direction has sadly vitiated the dramatic core.