Bob Sherron, Contributing Writer
Last semester the drama department wowed us with Tom Stoppard’s sprawling cross-temporal commentary on love, death, thermodynamics, Lord Byron and the importance of proper candle-maintenance.
This year, it’s changing gears.
Ghosts, by Henrik Ibsen, stars Kate Chiappe, Skyler Patton, Paul Fojut, Aiden Malone and Seamus Young. I sat down to speak with the director, Kyle Lemieux, about the production. In his words:
“It’s a play about the ghosts we all have behind closed doors … The truth is beautiful, but in the terms of domestic life it can also be the dust we brush under the rug. Ibsen pulls the rug up, and that’s alarming.
“It’s a haunting play,” Lemieux said. “Its tone is so severe and focused, because it deals with the stuff that we don’t like to talk about it. Art is dangerous – it upsets things that were believed to be set in stone.”
Lemieux described the plot of Ghosts as being “basically about Mrs. Alving, who has built an orphanage in honor of her husband. Her son has come back for the opening, which is the 10-year anniversary of the father’s death. Uncomfortable truths begin to emerge about Mr. Alvin and the past, and the ghosts of the past become very present on the stage … in a real, literal way.”
When it was first performed, Ghosts was met with massive uproar; many of the myriad social issues it tackles were taboo on stage. Though such sensibilities are (mostly) absent today, Ibsen’s treatment, Lemieux argues, remains relevant.
“When he wrote the play, the biggest, most visceral response was, ‘how dare you put a character with syphilis in the play and make that one of the central themes!’”
Lemieux pointed out, “There was also a massive response to Mrs. Alving’s attitude. This was obviously something Ibsen was grappling with himself as a playwright – the role of women. Do these old norms of gender relations still work?” This is a question that Lemieux finds just as relevant today.
“There are no easy answers for that, and the play doesn’t provide that, and that’s why it’s such a transcendent piece of work,” he said. “Great plays do not provide the answers in a black and white way. The image is largely gray … The things that enraged audiences then are still things that challenge people today.”
Lemieux noted that those who have already experienced a production of Ghosts may still be pleasantly surprised – Nicholas Rudall’s modern translation bridges the gap between Ibsen’s original and our American context. “He has a very particular American syntax,” Lemieux said. “It’s a muscular translation.”
Additionally, the production has “translated” the imagery of the play – it will be set, not on some temporally distant fjord, but in late ’50s Midwest America. Why? According to Lemieux, it is the closest point in American history in which such a plot might thrive. “The ’50s are when highways were built, so people were connected in a way they hadn’t been before,” Lemieux said. “We’re setting it right before those interstates get laid, so there are communities of isolation.”
If you care about sexual politics, the stifling nature of societal structures or deeply personal character-driven drama, or just want to see another stunning set, Ghosts will be haunting Margaret Jonsson Theater from Oct. 31 to Nov. 10.
(And don’t forget to stay afterwards for talkbacks with the director, cast and crew!)