Strapping and fragile, innocent and profane, heavy with experience and yet seemingly new-born--Liv Ullmann is nothing if not an actress of tantalizing ambivalence. Her soul is as transparent as spring water, but what it reflects are the dark mysteries of humankind.
Last night, the Norwegian actress opened in the Eisenhower Theater in a rare revival of "Ghosts," and while this production is still grappling with the difficulties of Henrik Ibsen's century-old drama, Ullmann infuses it with the white flame of her talent. She is young to be playing Mrs. Alving, widow of a degenerate captain and mother of a syphilitic son, who wants only to open the windows of her life to the cleansing wind of truth and honesty. But she is not too young.
At that age when she can appear either iridescently girlish or stolidly maternal, depending on which way the candlelight falls, Ullmann expands a claustrophobic world with her special presence. There's something of the moon about her: She waxes and wanes, gathering to full womanhood at times, only to shed the maturity in a moment of indecision or anguish and look like a lost child at the fair. As a result, Mrs. Alving is no longer a character at the end of her rope, reaping the awful consequences of her past and a narrow-minded society. She has become a creature of possibilities, a woman coming into ripeness, ironically just as Ibsen's script is pulling the plug on any future. Ullmann's performance goes a long way toward making a strong-minded play a poignant one as well.
Time has, of course, mitigated the scandalous dimensions of "Ghosts," which shocked the 19th century for its then-bold discussion of venereal disease. And antibiotics have pretty much taken care of Ibsen's notion of fate, whereby the sexual sins of the father could be, and were, passed on to the son. What remains is the drama of a woman who has tried to live by society's conventions, sweeping the lies and compromises of a suffocating 17-year marriage under the rug.
As the curtain rises, Mrs. Alving is prepared to pay one last tribute to the duty and appearances that have governed her behavior: She has poured her late husband's fortune into the construction of a foundling home, which will be dedicated the following morning. To the world at large and to her bohemian son, Oswald, who has just returned from Paris, this will be Captain Alving's memorial. The town's walking pulpit, Pastor Manders, will even be on hand to preside over the opening day ceremonies. For Mrs. Alving, however, the home is really her way of disposing once and for all of the ghost of her dissolute husband and his tainted money.
But ghosts are not so easily laid to rest. "I think in some way," observes Mrs. Alving, in the sturdy and generally colloquial translation provided by Arthur Kopit, "all of us are ghosts. Not only because our mothers and fathers still live on inside us, but because of all the dead ideas and lifeless old beliefs lingering inside of us as well. And how they hold on!" Some of the beliefs espoused by the characters in "Ghosts" may have changed since Ibsen's day (although not all of them, and not all that much). But his awareness of the persistence of convention and the price it exacts from its adherents, continues to be frighteningly apt.
What makes the play devilishly tricky to act is that all the deeds have long since been committed by the time we first meet the characters in Mrs. Alving's gray and lavender living room, an abode made even grayer by the clouds of rain rolling down off the mountains. While some plays sketch in the basic situation and proceed from there, the slow sketching in of the past is the whole play here. If the three acts are not to seem irredeemably talky, the actors must convince us they are dealing with revelations, not reminiscences. Through words alone, the past must be made to wreak its violence on the present.
As yet, there is something less than inexorable about the Kennedy Center production. Director John Madden has allowed characters who are sometimes petty to appear foolish, which is not the same thing. The evening is not without humor, but it is sometimes noticeably lacking in weight. And you will have to overlook what amounts, on occasion, to a virtual United Nations of accents--Scandinavian, clipped British and several varieties of American.
John Neville has succinctly captured the priggishness of Pastor Manders, his small-minded conscience and the breathless, fluttery indignation that he bestows on an immoral world. But, somewhere in this prig, there is also a man who once loved Mrs. Alving. Early in her marriage, she came to him for solace and he violated his heart by sending her back to her philandering husband. Is there no scar tissue? No leftover confusion, however fleeting? If Manders is not to appear an utter dolt, we've got to see his past, too.
The production does not much benefit, either, from a supporting cast that is largely mediocre. Jane Murray understands the basic duality of Regina, the maid, with her pretensions to high-born living and her essential vulgarity, but the portrait is not yet sharp. Edward Binns, the drunken carpenter who is her father--in name, at least--is a scurrilous old goat in the most obvious ways. And Kevin Spacey, as Mrs. Alving's tormented son Oswald, is not so haunted of look and manner as he is merely obstreperous.
To him and Ullmann fall one of modern drama's most compelling curtain scenes, when Oswald is suddenly struck blind from syphilis and Mrs. Alving must decide whether to extend the morphine capsules that will end his misery. It is Ullmann's wan bewilderment--her lips and her hands saying "yes," then saying "no," and finally saying "yes" and "no" at one and the same time--that makes the moment riveting.
In the difficult and quixotic business of putting on plays, what the Kennedy Center has gotten right more often than not this season is the leading lady. Irene Worth, as the mistress of the asylum, cut like a silver hacksaw through the dense madness of "The Physicists." Zoe Caldwell brought a barbarian's exoticism to "Medea." Even Jean Stapleton's unadorned decency was right for "The Late Christopher Bean," a play that otherwise amounted to less than a hill of beans.
And now Ullmann.
GHOSTS. By Henrik Ibsen. Adaptation by Arthur Kopit. Directed by John Madden; scenery, Kevin Rupnik; costumes, Theoni V. Aldredge; lighting, Martin Aronstein. With Liv Ullmann, John Neville, Edward Binns, Kevin Spacey, Jane Murray. At the Eisenhower Theater through Aug. 22.