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Ghosts is an awfully direct play—direct to the point of preachiness, according to some of its early critics. Nice, then, that Edwin Sherin’s production for the Shakespeare Theatre depends so much on subtlety and suggestion: From its eloquent design elements to certain specifics of actorial gesture, this Ghosts nudges where a less accomplished reading might elbow, even as it rummages boldly through contemporary culture in its pursuit of immediacy. But ultimately, alas, it may be both too familiar and too contained for its own good.

The curtain goes up…Well, it doesn’t go merely up, and it’s not precisely a curtain. Designer Walt Spangler presents the arriving audience with a stage obscured by an enormous painter’s drop cloth, a billowing blue-gray expanse that manages to suggest both a shroud and the sea that soon confirms its presence in the sibilances of Martin Desjardins’ soundscape; death, then, and distances, and isolation are to be among the evening’s themes, and we haven’t quite started yet. Steve Heitzeg’s incidental music murmurs comfortingly as the lights begin to go down, repeatedly contemplating a three-note echo from Brahms’ lullaby; motherhood, too, is going to be at issue here. Then that vast slate expanse gathers itself to itself, slipping liquidly away in every direction, a good portion of it rushing toward the audience like flood water before disappearing beneath the lip of the stage. Revelations are in store, it says.

And they will have to do with family, with legacies, if we can trust the aggressive architecture of the island mansion Spangler has designed for the patrician Alvings, who’ve been relocated in Sherin’s adaptation from 19th-century Scandinavia to 1980s New England. A wide, high-ceilinged room, furnished cleanly in whites and earth tones, opens onto a steel-and-glass greenhouse that itself opens onto that brooding sea. Huge canvases stand here and there—draped, naturally, indicating both the presence of an artist and the disruptive potential of art. The lady of the house looks sternly out upon it all from a high-mounted portrait, her expression anything but maternal, and a staircase spirals upward from a corner, dominating the room with its inescapable suggestion of DNA. Beneath it sits a strikingly modernist architectural model, not far from an expansive oak desk that seems resolutely out of character with its contemporary surroundings—rather like the old-fashioned ideas that will shortly cause its mistress so much trouble.

This is an elegant exhibition of theatrical telegraphy, one entirely worthy of a play that so thoroughly showcases Ibsen’s magisterial command of the dramatist’s craft. Nothing happens in Ghosts until it needs to; no piece of information is divulged until it will have maximum impact, and the fabric of this production does much to soften up the audience for the succession of precisely targeted bombs the playwright will drop. Would that both of the principal performances were as rich.

Ghosts concerns itself with repression, with misguided conformity, with the keeping up of appearances that don’t deserve to be maintained, and Jane Alexander’s Helen Alving remains the very incarnation of the stolid Mainer even as the cost of her dutiful conservatism becomes clear. Too much so, perhaps: Her artist son, estranged after years in boarding schools and distant cities, has turned up at her house, obviously ill; a man she has loved, admired, and depended on delivers a stinging, self-righteous assault on her failures as a wife and mother; she’s forced to confess the long-suppressed truth about her late husband’s grotesque infidelities, and her complicity in concealing them, to the people among whom such knowledge will cause the most grief and consternation; and her pious friend’s concern for public opinion spells the doom of a long-gestating project intended to safeguard the family’s reputation in the community. Throughout, Alexander is all formidable mask: Until a last, shattering moment, there’s no hint from her of the emotional turmoil you’d imagine in a woman awakening to the knowledge of her place in a bankrupt moral order. Granted, Helen is a woman trained to display an unruffled surface, so histrionics are hardly called for, but mightn’t we see at least the occasional sign of the damage that rigid self-control is doing her?

The severity of Alexander’s performance is thrown into vivid relief by the feverish, fragile quality of Alexander Pascal’s Oswald, a young man so obviously disintegrating that you wonder all the more at his mother’s seemingly perfunctory expressions of concern. Pascal is as expressive and subtle as the production that frames him; at one point, Oswald’s flinch at his mother’s caress says everything necessary about the gulf that divides them. At another, long before the script spells out his fate, he speaks of a life lived exuberantly “with my friends,” and a slight motion of his hand toward one of his giant portraits—two nude men, their desiccated beauty rendered with defiant sensuality—communicates with terrible clarity the nature of his illness.

The idea of an Oswald with AIDS will doubtless irritate some purists, and some of Sherin’s dialogue seems intrusively self-conscious for the production’s ’80s milieu, but what’s really troubling about the director’s ambitious update is that it simply doesn’t pay off. He’s made Helen’s doomed son a transgressive painter rather than merely an open-minded youth and sent him off to contract his own fatal disease rather than saddling him with the hereditary syphilis that is the original Osvald’s destruction. The intent, apparently, was to guarantee this Ghosts the unsettling power of the play’s 1883 premiere, but the Mark Messersmith canvases that litter the stage—even the liberated ideas and fluid sexuality they bespeak—aren’t all that provocative, even in this increasingly less compassionate and more conservative city. In 1981, perhaps, but we’ve simply seen too much, suffered too much since then to be more than saddened by what transpires in Sherin’s version.

What remains profoundly disturbing is the play’s endgame, which is unchanged. That judgmental friend (Ted van Griethuysen’s alcoholic Pastor Manders) has himself faced destruction—and the brutal fact of his own shallow hypocrisies. The woman in whose arms Oswald hoped to find solace (Noel True’s callow Gina) has proved, literally and figuratively, not to be the woman he thought her. A father figure (André De Shields’ Jacob) has been revealed as venal and corrupt. And the dying Oswald is left alone with the mother whose essential cowardice is directly or indirectly the author of all the destruction around her—and who, at the very last, fails him yet again. Ghosts is tragedy upon tragedy, an avalanche of grief triggered by “the lies we’ve inherited” from our Puritan forebears; its universality and its power derive not from the specifics of any update, but from the awful, enduring strength of the shibboleths it targeted more than a century ago.

Kenneth, What Is the Frequency?, the latest late-night snark from Cherry Red Productions, will strike a chord with what I suspect is a smaller audience: those among us who (a) remember Dan Rather’s 1986 mugging; (b) pay enough attention to the work of Ken Burns, Basil Twist, and Errol Morris to recognize their techniques; and (c) admire the precious scribblings of the late literary light Donald Barthelme. And even that presumably wee subset of the population will find itself impatient with a show that, in high Saturday Night Live style, keeps har-har-ing long after you’ve gotten its joke.

That impression, to be fair, may have something to do with the various technical faults and performance flubs that dogged the press performance last Sunday. Lighting cues misfired; a constipated DVD player made pixelated hash of what was presumably meant to be an amusing video accompaniment to an extended puppetry sequence; B. Stanley stumbled repeatedly over his wordy narration, shuffling index cards and file folders and at one point losing his way entirely.

Otherwise, the cast was game throughout, so it’s just possible that the production will have tightened up and turned into a laff riot by the time this review hits print. But I suspect there’s a larger issue: Kenneth is built on the dry bones of a Harper’s essay that purported to find an explanation for the Rather assault between the lines of various Barthelmean obscurities—the suggestion, mostly satirical, was that there might have been some murky romantic history between the two Texan contemporaries—and it still feels rather too much like an essay despite the various clevernesses with which writer-directors Ian Allen and Monique LaForce have tricked it out. The arch tone, workable in the digest-it-at-your-own-pace form of the original, may simply be unsustainable in a live-performance format. Certainly it goes on longer than wisdom would dictate; call me a Puritan if you will, but I say any after-hours show with a lectern and an intermission is immoral by definition. CP