Debra Lass, Keegan McDonald

Debra Lass, Keegan McDonald



Joe Stillman, Lass, McDonald

Joe Stillman, Debra Lass, Keegan McDonald


Review by Beatrice Williams-Rude






“Ghosts after Ibsen” is Thomas Kilroy’s take on Ibsen’s “Ghosts.” He’s moved the work from 1881 Scandinavia to provincial Ireland in the mid-1980s. The parallels are astonishing and the relocation in time and geography work splendidly, as long as the original concepts are retained. When, toward the end, the focus veers, the trajectory is slowed and points are lost.

That said, overall this is a brilliant reworking of Ibsen’s screed.

Ibsen and Kilroy lock horns with many “verities” of society: church, concepts of duty, marriage, even suicide. The “ghosts” are the elements of destructive past behavior that haunt us, even as we repeat them. The “joy of life” is pitted against arbitrary concepts of duty.

Kilroy renames the characters transparently: Osvald in Ibsen becomes Oliver in Kilroy; Pastor Manders becomes Father Manning; Helene Alving becomes Helen Aylward; and Jacob Engstrand is renamed Jacko English.

The leit motif: the sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons. (A historical example is syphilitic Henry VIII infecting his son, Edward VI, with congenital syphilis.)

“Ghosts after Ibsen” takes place in the home of a well-to-do widow, Helen Aylward, who is using her inheritance from her husband to build a sanctuary for women and girls. Insisting that she can provide for her son, Oliver, she’s trying to use up her late husband’s money so her son won’t be tainted by anything of his father’s, said father having been an alcoholic womanizer.

Early in her marriage Helen had left her husband and fled to a priest seeking refuge, but he’d insisted that she return to her husband, that it was her duty. There had been a strong sexual attraction to which Helen would happily have yielded, but Father Manning, using all his willpower, resisted and sent her back to her miserable, loveless marriage.

She sent her son to Paris, wanting to keep him away from the influence of his father. Oliver, however, having no knowledge of his father’s behavior, concluded that his mother simply wanted to be rid of him. Now he has come home. He’d been an admired, if not necessarily financially successful, painter in Paris but now he is ill. He’d formed a strong bond with the family’s maid, Regina, daughter of the family’s previous maid. He looks to her for succor. Helen looks on with dread. She knows what neither Regina nor Oliver know—that they are half siblings.

The husband had impregnated the maid, now deceased, and a marriage to a ne’er do well carpenter had been arranged. The threat of incest looms large. Helen can do nothing to avert it without telling the truth, and in so doing the whole respectable cover—the lies kept hidden—would be blown.

And here’s where the play goes amiss: In changing syphilis to HIV-positive the direct congenital “sins of the father” link is vitiated, and with the signs that Oliver is gay, the threat of incest is dissipated.

The play is splendidly directed by Austin Pendleton. The set is effective although minimalist with miming used to indicate turning lights on and off and opening and closing curtains. The use of books is particularly effective, harking back to Ibsen in which the clergyman blames the protagonist claiming her troubles come from reading them. No credit is given for set design.

The cast is excellent, in particular Joseph Stillman whose portrayal of Father Manning infuses the energy that propels the piece. Debra Lass makes Helen Aylward a fascinating mass of contradictions in a dazzlingly nuanced performance, but many of her lines are lost when she drops her voice. Lauren Hobbs is a charming Regina and Keegan McDonald successfully conveys Oliver’s agony. Jim Broaddus makes stunning use of his brief appearance as Jacko English.

“Ghosts after Ibsen” will run until March 19 at the Cell, 338 West 23rd Street.
Tickets are $18 and can be purchased online at: by emailing or at the box office prior to each performance.

*Photos courtesy of The Furies