The pop machines in the Green Rooms at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center charge $1.45 for a 12 ounce Diet Coke. And only accept exact change. So there we were all weekend, scrounging for dimes. Theatre is fueled by massive amounts of Diet Coke (I would be hesitant to cast a Pepsi drinker), and while we all had the requisite dollar bills, we were desperate for coins. My wife and I have a big change jar in our bedroom, and for our Friday rehearsal, I took every quarter, dime and nickel, brought ’em to rehearsal in a baggie. We survived.
We were doing a staged reading of Ibsen’s Ghosts, and those coins provide the metaphor for our experience–we improvised, worked together, and we survived. We had four days to put it up–Thursday and Friday evening rehearsals, all day Saturday, all day Sunday, with a late afternoon Sunday performance. It was a reading, but fully blocked, actors holding book, but with performances as strong as four days’ rehearsal could make them.
Sunday morning, I was working that devastating final scene, the scene in which young Oswald Alving, his brain being destroyed by syphilis, begs his mother to administer the pills that will end his life. Her final line: “No, no, no. Yes. No, no!” And the play ends indecisively. We talked about it; what would she choose? We were, as a company, as conflicted about it as audiences seemed to be.
But the more salient question for us regarding that final moment: how do you act it? Does Mrs. Alving lose it? I would, if that were my child; I’d be a basket case. Does she hold her emotions in check? That’s what she’s done all her life, throughout her nightmare of a marriage; covered up, hidden her feelings. Is it a combination of the two? And we were working it out, the actors and I, and solving the acting problems in that scene felt as impossible as the dilemma we were presenting. Not that my actors weren’t up to the challenge–they were magnificent throughout. No, what frightened us was our sense of the size of the problem and the exceedingly limited time we had left to solve it. I felt like we were trying to eat a huge meal in one bite, instead of nibbling on it for weeks. Ghosts is such a magnificent play; we were terrified we wouldn’t be up to its demands. Four days, right? Just four days.
Christy Summerhays played Mrs. Alving. I’m not kidding when I say that if I were asked to direct Ghosts in New York or London, and given my choice of any actor in the world to play Helene Alving–Streep, Winslet, Mirren, Blanchett, anyone–I would cast Christy and I wouldn’t hesitate. Such an extraordinary combination of technique, elegance, beauty, vulnerability. I don’t say this because we’re friends, though I treasure our friendship–I say this because she’s that good. And so, how did she handle that delicate final moment? All of the above. Given a choice between two possible interpretations of the scene, she gave me the best, the rightest moments of both of interpretations. She didn’t nail it–she pushed far beyond just ‘nailing it.’ Afterwards, my wife and I just sat there. “My gosh, she’s good,” we kept saying. In four days.
We had a late addition to the cast. Jason Tatom joined us, and played the small comic role of Jacob Engstrand. But Engstrand, with only three scenes and not a lot of lines, is an extraordinary role. He’s the one character in the play who knows exactly what he wants, and exactly how to get it. He’s the man with no illusions whatsoever. As we talked about the role, Jason compared him to Alfred Doolittle in Pygmalion/My Fair Lady. The cynic, the con artist. But we both agreed that Engstrand is a much richer part than Doolittle. And I’m glad I had Jason to play him.
Because as I’ve been saying all along, to anyone who would listen: Ibsen’s funny. I’m not kidding, either–Ghosts is a very funny play, at times. Without really playing for laughs, without pratfalls or comic takes, just playing the lines, as written, there’s fantastic satirical potential. Jason Tatom is an extraordinary comedic actor–I knew he’d earn every laugh honestly.
But the richer comic creation is Manders. Pastor Manders, Mrs. Alving spiritual (and financial) advisor has the second most lines in the play. He’s a fusspot moralist, a sputtering High Victorian churchman, a buffoon and a hypocrite. That’s how he’s written–my translation doesn’t push the comedy. Jason Bowcutt is an actor I didn’t know very well, but I learned soon enough what a fine actor he is, and how perfect for Manders. But Jason is also a fundamentally decent human being, kind and caring, and he worried about Manders, about mocking a churchman, about possibly making fun of a genuine and sincere Christian. Well, is it possible for someone to be a genuinely compassionate religious leader and also a bit of a fool? Is it possible for someone to give disastrously ineffective advise to a parishioner, but also care deeply about her welfare? In our last rehearsal, I challenged Jason to show us all of Manders, his foolishness and his compassion, his hypocrisy and his sincerity. I remember saying “I’m greedy! I want it all!” Wishing we had four more weeks of rehearsal to explore all sides of this character. Then, Sunday afternoon, in performance, Jason Bowcutt came through. He was magnificent. And he got every laugh, and there were many. And yet. . . I cared about Pastor Manders as well. And understood why Mrs. Alving says to him, ‘sometimes I just want to throw my arms around your neck and kiss you.’
I had seen Jessamyn Swenson in a play reading in Orem, and recommended that she audition for Jerry Rapier, artistic director of Plan B, and she ended up winning the difficult role of Regina, the maid, Oswald’s half-sister. Regina is a fascinating character too. It’s like she embodies the Feminine Other, the attractive young woman as, eternally and forever, Object. Oswald (who is putatively in love with her–at least he proposes marriage) calls her empty-headed, which she’s clearly not–she’s obviously a highly intelligent, though badly under-educated young woman. Mrs. Alving is willing to entertain the thought of her marrying Oswald (her half-brother, no wonder the Victorians found the play shocking), but regretfully adds that Regina is “not the right sort of woman” for her son. Engstrand (ostensibly her father), is happily willing to whore her out, and even Manders doesn’t seem to have a clue who she really is. In rehearsal, the challenge for Jessamyn was to find the real Regina, the actual person underneath all the masks the other characters want to fit on her face. In performance, in her last scene, she met and exceeded that challenge.
Finally, Topher Rasmussen played Oswald. In rehearsal, we were kidding around about the characters’ names. Ibsen’s character names are often meaningful, and I mentioned that ‘Mand’ in Manders means ‘husband’ and Regina, obviously, suggests royalty. Topher spoke up: “what does Oswald mean?” “The guy who shot Kennedy,” I responded. Rimshot.
But Topher is a brilliant young actor, so immediate, so responsive, so intuitive in his choices. I’ve worked with Topher quite a bit in the past, and I knew what we’d get from him–a consistently surprising, utterly grounded performance. Oswald’s a tough character too. His final scene is unbearably moving, but he’s also kind of a jerk, the kind of young man who can say to his mother, “I’m sick, mother, I don’t have time to think about other people.” But Topher’s reading of that line rooted it in pain and fear–we cared tremendously in his last moments.
Ghosts isn’t done much in the States. Ibsen isn’t done much anymore. I blame the British ‘Gloomy Ibsen’ tradition. I’m a nervous wreck during performances, writhing in my chair; my wife likes to tease my about it. So we had a packed house in the Rose’s big proscenium space, I think mostly consisting of people who had heard about the play, knew of its historical significance, but had never actually seen it in production. I’m an Ibsen evangelist, and I was on record as saying that I think Ibsen’s funny; I was acutely sensitive to every laugh. Even had two actor friends sitting on opposite sides of the house–my own two-man claque. They weren’t needed, turns out. The laughs built and built, culminating in Manders’ great second act curtain line: ‘And it’s not insured!’ Jason Bowcutt had them by then; they loved everything he’d done up to then, and that laugh rocked the house. And yet the laughter did not in any sense detract from the tragedy of this great play’s final lines.
We only had four days. Given four weeks, we could really have showed you something. Meanwhile, a packed house got to see that Ibsen still works. It was, at any rate, a wonderful experience.