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'Ghosts' walks lightly over Ibsen's gloom

It's a happy day when our major regional theater takes on a fresh production of a demanding classic and commissions a new translation to boot. Henrik Ibsen's 1881 play "Ghosts" is a tough piece, both in terms of performance -- it can seem a virtually unactable soap opera -- and in audience attraction. Studio Arena Theatre took it on anyway, and the theater deserves credit for the relative daring move, especially in a season containing a host of very accessible plays.

For me, though, it's not quite so happy a day when the production treads lightly above the impenetrable layers of the great Norwegian's gloom. Director Kent Paul airs on the side of caution when it comes to the expression of the emotions that surge through the play. He keeps in check any visceral performances and his actors rarely stray from the bounds ordinary conversation -- even as the topics veer toward incest and syphilis. It's certainly a reasoned and balanced production, but also a little tepid.

Paul is not about to risk falling into melodrama, one of the potential liabilities of "Ghosts." But he pays for his prudence by scattering too many of Ibsen's shadows. The cast might not have let Paul break loose even if he desired it. The critical role -- the haunted Mrs. Alving who is at the psychological center of the story -- is played by Cynthia Mace, a solid, contained actor who is not going to burst forth with searing emotions. She's good, but she doesn't generate much forward propulsion. In the long dialogues with Pastor Manders, Philip Goodwin's keen sense of timing and dramatic rhythm come close to upstaging her. The Pastor should be the priggish, duty-obsessed counterpoint to the passion of the liberal Mrs. Alving. Yes, Mrs. Alving is holding back horrible secrets, but somehow we have to see beyond the facade. With Goodwin's fluid speech and the antics of the appealing character actor John FitzGibbon sweeping about her, Mace seems at times nearly inert.

Aimee Phelan-Deconinck, who plays the maid Regina Engstrand, has no idea of how flow of language and movement give an actor a sense of style without an accompanying sense of preening self-consciousness. Unfortunately, the play opens with Regina berating her drunken father, Jacob (who, as we soon see, is only her purported father). She manages only an actor's demonstration of anger. Later, when she turns flirtatious she adds little synthetic skips, hip-swings and head bobs. By now it is almost painful to watch.

This woeful opening is forgiven once Mrs. Alving offers her revelation of the true nature of her dead husband's desolate life to the Pastor, facts that she has been harboring to save her son, Oswald, from the shame of it. Ultimately, Oswald (Mark Thornton) will have to confront the sins of a father that include congenital syphilis, alcoholism and a sexual dalliance with the family maid. The latter sin produces Regina, who in turn becomes the unknowing Oswald's incestuous love object. These horrors may require more than the matter-of-fact pronouncement that Mace gives.

Whatever the state of Mace's costume, the actor could use some intensity in the bond between mother and son when it's most needed. Aiding and abetting is Thornton. He goes through the motions efficiently, and has some high moments. But I could have handled some high pitched feeling for him and from Mace when a son is on the brink of death by "softening of the brain."

In the end, director Paul may have needed to give the play more dramatic drive. He isn't always adept at compressing and drawing out situations for emotional effect. Perhaps Paul was going for some grandly understated thing, Ibsen as a distant rumble. But what he gets in the crucial final scene is a "Guess what, Mom? I'm dying"/ "Oh, no! You're kidding!" kind of dynamic. Just when the emotions peak he lets his two actors slip into their actor selves. It is the very moment when they should be in a state of hyperawareness, critically alert to horrible suffering within the other.

e-mail: rhuntington@buffnews.com

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>Theater Review

"Ghosts"

Review: Three stars (out of 4)

Through March 5 at Studio Arena Theatre, 710 Main St.

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