Secrets Resonate Through Off The Wall Production of Ibsen

Ghosts Off The Wall
Ghost 2001 Off the Wall Productions – Feb-Mar 2015, left to right Ken Bolden, Virginia Wall Gruenert, Weston Blakesley – Photo by Heather Mull

Ghosts.  It might be more aptly known as Secrets.

Helen Alving has spent her life putting duty before her personal desires. In spite of her careful attempts to fulfill her duties to her degenerate husband and protect the victims of his debauchery – their son and his illegitimate daughter toiling as a parlor maid under Helen’s eye – she is unable to reap the benefits of a dutiful life. In short, it blows up in her face as the truth slowly unwinds itself to Helen’s family and confidantes.

In this original adaptation of Ibsen’s morality tale from 1881, Off The Wall Theater explores the feminist themes particularly as Helen struggles to speak her truth in the face of consistent rejection by the men who surround her. Every truth, every fact, every wound she shares about her husband is rebutted, refuted, and reframed to reinforce the morality of the time. Duty over desire.

Even Helen’s attempts to work within this Victorian mentality to protect her son Oswald and provide some security for his illegitimate sister Regina are thwarted by the secrets she’s kept so long. What resonated with me as an adult child is how the secret keeping is far worse than the actual secrets. Oswald was physically removed from his father’s sphere, but the distorted picture of a noble, good man blinded Oswald to his own frailties. Regina’s constant scrambling to secure a means of survival understandably boil over when she realizes what she’s been denied (“a gentleman’s daughter”) all of these years. Helen’s good intentions are for naught as she receives no credit for her tactics. Still, Oswald and Regina both embody her survival mentality by plotting their own survival schemes.

It is easy to blame Helen for keeping secrets, but Ibsen masterfully illustrates how the men with power and influence were able to thwart her attempts to live authentically. He also uses the comic foil Jacob Engstrand to demonstrate that even the truly duplicitous and debased men with lesser reputations warrant more respect and credibility than any woman. Gender trumps everything.

Even secrets.

Ghosts is an interesting production for Off The Wall, exploring the women’s themes woven into a classic play that shattered the illusions of male privilege. The performers are terrific as usual with Virginia Wall Gruenert shining as Helen. One reason Off The Wall continues to draw us back so often is the multi-faceted exploration of womens’ experiences. I’m hopeful they will continue to explore the classics in future years.

Ghosts continues through this weekend (March 14) at Off The Wall Theater in Carnegie.

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