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I know I was supposed to be noting AIDS parallels during the last scene of Ghosts at Arena Stage, but the question that kept cartwheeling through my mind as Tana Hicken’s shattered Mrs. Alving moaned words of comfort to her syphilitic son was, “What on earth are we going to do with Ibsen after the millennium?”

This isn’t an entirely idle question, though it probably sounds like one. Ibsen’s work will obviously be causing little shudders of recognition for as long as free-thinkers continue to confront parochialism. That’s what happens in Ghosts, and as director Liviu Ciulei’s staging makes clear, there’s nothing new about the rift between conservative clergymen and the progressive mothers of young men with sexually transmitted diseases.

The Norwegian playwright’s contribution, of course, goes way beyond such issue-oriented observations. No dramatist since Shakespeare has so influenced theatrical form. Ibsen, the champion of women’s rights and social criticism, is also the guy who ensconced stage action in three-walled living rooms, who caused riots by articulating the unmentionable, who invented stage realism (and then added symbols, giving Arthur Miller something to work with 50 years later). Western theater has spent more than a century in his thrall.

But that’s why the question of what to do with him arises. Theatrical styles come and go, with even the strongest ones wearing out their welcomes when social impulses change. The enormous energy of the Greek theater, with its godlike heroes and citizen choruses, was pretty much spent after 80 years. The raucous poetry and complex structure of the Elizabethan stage faded in less than 60. England’s flirtation with Restoration comedy lasted barely two decades.

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Our current cycle—with its prose dialogue, quasi-photographic portraits of middle-class life, and socially significant content—began in 1877 with Ibsen’s Pillars of Society and is the first theatrical movement ever to outlive all members of its original audience. There have been stabs through the years at creating other forms—absurdism, expressionism—but none has remotely challenged the primacy of the Ibsen model. We’ve shortened his four acts to two and masked his passion for sociology with a new excitement over the individual soul, but we’re still making plays in his image.

And the theater is suffering for it. Cheer all you want for Hicken’s splendid turn as Mrs. Alving—and believe me, she’s worth the cheers—but the form she’s propping up with her considerable talent is well past the point of diminishing returns. Stage realism once seemed revelatory by comparison with the strutting, romantically declaimed historical plays in verse it was replacing. But television and movies have so devalued the impact of mumbling, shuffling actors that even the brand of heightened naturalism favored by Ciulei tends to inspire questions that are more prosaic than philosophical.

At Arena, for instance, when Henry Strozier’s Pastor Manders responds to an Act 1 query by saying, “I heard Osvald Alving was home,” emphasizing the character’s first name because that’s the information the author needs emphasized, rather than leaning on the verb as would be more natural in conversation, the line hits your ear oddly. You may find yourself wondering, as I did, if that reading is the director’s choice. The actor’s? And why is Patricia Ageheim’s bright-eyed Regine moving a chair to an odd, midroom spot when the pastor could simply sit at the table?

None of this is remotely important to the content of the play, but in a production done in a style so naturalistic that the director thought it important to pronounce “Regine” with a hard “g” and “Manders” to rhyme with “wanders,” as would be customary in Norway, it acquires distracting weight. So does the presence of the greenhouse that Ciulei (who also designed the set) has placed in a subterranean spot at one side of the playing area. In a neo-surrealist staging, like the one JoAnne Akalaitis gave Strindberg’s Dance of Death last season, so prominent a visual cue would loom large with symbolism. Here it just raises irrelevant architectural questions. Should audiences ignore it, since it’s never so much as alluded to? Or should they try to puzzle out the layout of Mrs. Alving’s country estate, which allows characters to make entrances from all directions at stage level, but requires them to go downstairs to reach the dining room?

What the actors can do to overcome such distractions they’re mostly doing, though only Charles Janasz’s miscast but spellbinding Osvald comes close to Hicken’s level of performance. Osvald is supposed to be an innocent lad who inherited the syphilis that’s rotting his brain from his dissolute father, and to avoid speculation on the subject of transmission, it’s useful if he seems plausibly virginal. Janasz looks to be pushing 40 and is consequently forced to stretch Ibsen’s artist-as-clueless-naif notions a bit further than they’ll comfortably go. Which is not to dispute the riveting effect of his dissipated, stoop-shouldered, hanging-on-by-his-fingernails appearance, or his harrowing pleas for deliverance in the play’s final scene.

The stricken sobs with which Hicken replies are so rending they almost seem to define maternal grief, ending her muscular take on a great tragic role with an agonizing flourish. But what this enthralling actress can communicate with a head-snap or brow-furrow is no less astonishing. When lectured by Manders (“To expect happiness in this life is a form of arrogance, Mrs. Alving”) she makes the tightening of lips into a hard, straight line express a whole lifetime of pent-up frustration.

Strozier’s pastor is a comparatively broad creation, occasionally amusing—as when he can’t see he’s being bamboozled into financing a bawdy house—but never making a case for the character as something other than a puritanical pill. Ageheim’s Regine manages to seem robust without otherwise registering, while as her conniving father Wendell Wright is actively annoying, seeming to have wandered in from some other play entirely, say The Time of Your Life.

Design elements are attractive, especially Paul Tazewell’s tight, constraining gowns and looser but scratchy-looking wool suits. That these characters are not going to be comfortable, either emotionally or physically, is obvious from the moment they appear. But then, that doesn’t really give them anywhere to go, does it? And that, in a way, is the problem with Ghosts, a century after its creation. We’ve assimilated its method so completely that we can run way ahead of the author, who must observe the conventions of real-life pacing that he invented.

As early as 1934, Brecht was telling an interviewer, “Works by such people as Ibsen and Strindberg remain important historical documents, but they no longer move anybody. A modern spectator can’t learn anything from them.” Brecht, of course, was a provocateur, and as a proponent of his own brand of anti-realism, had an ax to grind. But watching Ghosts at Arena, it’s hard not to suspect that he may also have had a point.CP