Review: Ghosts of the Past Come Back to Haunt at Seattle Rep

Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and David Strathairn lead the Ibsen drama, directed by Carey Perloff.

David Strathairn and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio in Ghosts at Seattle Rep
David Strathairn and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio in Ghosts at Seattle Rep
(© Bronwen Houck)

Ghosts, the 1881 play by Henrik Ibsen, is a bit like a soap opera before the days of a television. Overbearing mothers, illegitimate children, and religious trauma shape the character arcs that make up the play, which is now running in person and virtually at Seattle Rep through May 1. This kind of universal thematic material continues to be powerful and epitomizes why Ibsen's works are still performed today.

The play deals with women trying to escape horrible circumstances in an environment governed by men, which is a recurring theme in Ibsen's work. Carey Perloff's production is highlighted by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio's performance as the family matriarch and, despite its age, proves that the play is just as relevant today as it was over a hundred years ago.

Ghosts follows the Alving family as they prepare for the 10th anniversary of the beloved patriarch's death. His widow, Helena Alving (Mary Elizabeth Mastranotonio), has built an orphanage that she will dedicate in his honor. As preparations begin, it is revealed that her husband was not as beloved by his family as the public seems to think. Over the course of the drama, long-held secrets come to light involving her son Oswald (Albert Rubio III), their maid Regina (Nikita Tewani), the family pastor, Manders (Oscar nominee David Strathairn), and local carpenter Jakob Engstrand (Thom Sesma).

Ibsen's script has been newly translated by scholar Paul Walsh, and Carey Perloff's production at Seattle Rep marks only its second outing (she directed the world premiere at Williamstown Theatre Festival in 2019 with a different company). The story is masterfully handled in the hands of Perloff and her cast, who balance the extremities of the plot (venereal disease and potential incest, anyone?) with the simplicities of her staging. In a show that contains such histrionic material, Perloff manages to ground the show by offering minimal movement which brings focus to the material and puts emphasis on the performers.

Strathairn is utterly convincing as a man who is sincere in his steadfast beliefs, despite how bigoted and unfounded they may be. The contrast between the speed in which Pastor Manders forgives the sins of men compared to the sins of women is highlighted expertly in Straithairn's understated performance and, unfortunately, reminds one of the continued treatment of women today.

As Regina's father and the local carpenter, Sesma successfully captures a man who has been pushed aside and disregarded by his daughter, while clinging to secrets that he dares not reveal, even if it would be to his benefit. Sesma's comedic timing, particularly as the play progresses, help to break up the melodramatic moments.

However, this is really Mastranonio's show. The bulk of the plot falls on her shoulders and her presence on stage is graceful, yet strong. Some of this is thanks to Ibsen's complex characterization, but the subtilities in Mastrantonio's movement and facial expressions add up to a performance that is difficult to look away from and hard to forget. As the plot develops, and without us even being aware, Mastranonio manages to shift our perspective from being fully on her side to seeing Helena for who she truly is: a coddling mother, who is perhaps just as much to blame for the failures of her family as anyone.

By contrast, the younger actors, namely Rubio and Tewani, were fairly underwhelming. Tewani was stiff throughout, making it difficult to believe her motives and the complexity of feeling that the script requires. Rubio seemed to simply be going through the motions, not fully listening or connecting with the other actors on stage. It was also often difficult to hear the actors; the sound design left something to be desired.

Something we could hear loud and clear, however, was the tone-setting music written and performed live by David Coulter on a variety of instruments and objects. Coulter's musical creations were almost characters themselves, integral to the heart and soul of this play. Though not constant, they were present at all the right moments to emphasize the undercurrents of the scene and forced us to the edge of our seats as if to get closer to the dramatic action unfolding on stage. Simply put, it would be a less engaging show without them.

Ultimately, this is a show about flawed people escaping the ghosts of the past, a concept that transcends time and generations, as well as a reminder of the continued poor treatment of women throughout history. Ibsen's 130-year-old play is just as relevant today, and thanks to Mastrantonio's masterclass of a performance, it is well worth the trip to Seattle Rep.