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Adultery. Free love. Incest. Syphilis. Assisted suicide. The hypocrisy of organized religion. It’s no wonder that Henrik Ibsen’s 1881 drama Ghosts caused such a scandal when it first appeared — and was banned in his native Norway for years. In Richard Eyre’s riveting and ingeniously staged revival, playing at BAM’s Harvey Theater through May 3, the work has lost none of its shock value or its dramatic potency.
Lesley Manville, who won an Olivier Award last year for the London run of the production, is a model of barely contained composure as Helene Alving. This well-heeled widow, another of Ibsen’s great antiheroines, delicately bucks against the traditions of 19th-century Norwegian society even as she struggles to maintain both her family and the outward appearance of decorum against increasingly long odds.
Her chief antagonist is Pastor Manders, a mouthpiece for propriety with whom Helene once had a mutual flirtation. Played with stiff-necked brusqueness by Will Keen, Manders is shocked by some of her free-thinking ideas, but even more by the sordid life she was forced to live with his good friend, the womanizing and abusive Captain Alving, after he rebuffed her advances.
Helene is further challenged by the return of her twentysomething son, Oswald (an affecting Billy Howle), a bohemian artistic type whom she had sent abroad to protect him from his father’s debased influence. But the apple has not fallen far from the tree. Not only is he physically ailing, a result of inherited venereal disease, but his flirtation with the family maid, Regina (a spirited Charlene McKenna) recalls his father’s dalliances with an earlier domestic — Regina’s own mother, whose actions Helene has long kept hush-hush.
The ghostly echoes of past actions and decisions haunt the characters of Ibsen’s drama, which has been smartly adapted by Eyre. Tim Hartley’s evocative set design, cunningly lit by Peter Mumford, features translucent glass wall panels that reveal the dining room behind the main drawing room, as well as the front hallway beyond that. The effect is both ghostly and thematically apt, turning the Alving estate into a glass house in which no family secret can be hidden from the prying eyes of neighbors or audiences. Grade: A