WILLIAMSTOWN — Environment was everything to Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen who used man-made and natural settings, and the objects within them, to shape the psychological and social landscape that so frequently holds Ibsen's characters captive.
For her talky, emotionally tepid, at best, production at Williamstown Theatre Festival — which officially opened for the press Thursday, midway through a three-week run that ends Aug. 18 — director Carey Perloff has kept Ibsen's play in its late 19th century time period. But, at the same time, as designed by Dane Laffery, the main residence on the estate belonging to the play's central figure, the widowed Mrs. Helen Alving (Uma Thurman), seems caught in a time warp — a sleek, floor-to-vegetation-thick-roof plexiglass-enclosed box that smacks of 21st-century modernity. Full light appears infrequently within the chamber. For the most part, it is a dimly lit, moody interior whose constant inhabitant is the production's composer, David Coulter, who, dressed in black tee-shirt and pants, performs his original often theremin-sounding score on wine glasses, a saw, a xylophone and a timpani. The action unfolds outside this dominating unit, decorated with a bench, a chair, a pile of books and, in a corner, a dining table and chairs, all set for a meal. The emotional climate is defined by Coulter's soundscape — eerie; haunting; threatening like oncoming thunder as it swells, breaks and then fades.
What goes on around and between Coulter's sound projections is Ibsen's play which revolves around the widow Alving, who has built what she believes is a good, repentant life built from the ashes of a disastrous marriage which produced a son, Oswald (Tom Pecinka, who plays the tortured young man as if he were wrapped in his own melodrama). As the play begins, Oswald has come home to stay after a long absence abroad. He is seriously afflicted with an unnamed rotting illness — syphilis, it was said at the time of the play's writing in 1881.
But syphilis was merely emblematic of the rot and decay that lay at the heart of a God-fearing community; a moral hypocrisy exemplified in "Ghost" by Pastor Manders (skillfully and fully played by Bernard White), who not only serves as Mrs. Alving's spiritual guide but her business advisor as well. More than that is the suggestion that there might have been an opportunity for the relationship between Mrs. Alving and the pastor to have been more than just business. Complicating their relationship is the fact that the weight of the pastor's self-righteousness bore down hard on Mrs. Alving after she walked out of her marriage to her abusive, debauched husband. It was her duty, Manders reminds her, to stay; to sacrifice her personal happiness for the sake of her husband and the institution of marriage. And so, now, to shore her husband's reputation in the community, she has built an orphanage which is due to open the following day.
Secrets abound in "Ghosts" and there are reckonings of one kind or another for each of the play's characters for whom the past offers no kindness in the present; a present inhabited by ghosts of all kinds, as Mrs. Alving — who winds up paying the highest price of all — observes.
Perloff's production works off a new translation by Paul Walsh, directly from the original Norwegian, that flows smoothly and in easy, nuanced, conversational fashion. The dialogue falls easily on the ear. There is a lot of it; most of it between Alving and Manders in the first act; Alving and Oswald in the secobnd. While Perloff's production moves fluidly, the dialogue flows with little sense of dramatic moment or occasion. The texture for the most part is steady and temperate save for the frequent strum und drang of Coulter's music and Thom Sesma's robust performance as Jakob Engstrand, a laborer on the orphanage project who, it turns out, has complicated connections to the Alving household.
Catherine Combs is credible as Regina Engstrand, Jakob's headstrong, ambitious daughter, who works for Mrs. Alving, who has brought Regina under protective wing.
And then there is Thurman's Mrs. Alving, who, as Winston Churchill once said of Russia, is "a riddle wrapped inside in a mystery inside an enigma." Some of that is Ibsen's doing. Mrs. Alving is not the most interesting of his prime female characters. But there is nothing revelatory in Thurman's oddly distanced performance; a performance painted with a limited palette. Oswald, in the end, is left crying out for the liberating sun. The light emanating from Thurman's Mrs. Alving is no more luminous than the inky murk inside that big plexiglass enclosure