For centuries, women were treated as property, with nothing to call their own; their husbands could beat them and they had no legal recourse. Even now that we treat domestic violence and rape as actual crimes, women are still most likely to be murdered by a partner or ex-partner. But at least we are now somewhat more willing to support women who decide to leave immoral or abusive husbands. The Victorian era’s strict moralism meant that women faced enormous pressure to stay and endure horrific domestic situations: When the female protagonist of Henrik Ibsen’s play, “A Doll’s House,” left her husband, audiences at the time (it premiered in 1879) were utterly scandalized. Ibsen then decided to lay bare what the personal consequences are for a woman who stays in his next play, “Ghosts,” at Everyman Theatre through May 3.
The play centers on Mrs. Helene Alving (Deborah Hazlett), a widow who has been using her husband’s fortune for philanthropic efforts, including an orphanage that is almost fully constructed. Through her conversations with Pastor Manders (James Whalen), we slowly learn that her husband had not been the reformed, dutiful husband that he appeared to be to society, but was rather a philanderer, an alcoholic, and a rapist (trigger warning). To protect the family name, she had hidden the truth of his actions, and sent away her son to boarding school at a young age with the hopes that he wouldn’t be exposed to his father’s abusive character, but at a great emotional cost to herself—and, as the play unfolds, we realize that there are greater consequences still to come.
Hazlett is enthralling as the lead in Everyman Theatre’s production. She and Whalen create a familiarity that illustrates the long history the characters share, then build a spellbinding tension as Mrs. Alving finally tells Pastor Manders the truth about her husband. Hazlett makes clear Alving’s strength, which makes it all the more distressing when Hazlett reveals the depths of her distress that she’s hidden for so long. As Alving describes feeling trapped in a house and a head full of memories of her husband’s transgressions, the emotion hits close to home for anyone who has felt trapped in an abusive home or relationship. “Here I am struggling with the ghosts inside me,” she laments at one point, and you can hear in her voice how much staying silent has weighed on her over the years.
Her obvious anguish makes it all the more infuriating when Pastor Manders seems incapable of believing her story, thanks to his strict adherence to the moralism of the age and his obvious concern with his own reputation above all else. When local drunkard Jakob Engstrand (Bruce Randolph Nelson)—who, it is implied, had mistreated his daughter Regina (Sophie Hinderberger), who is Alving’s maid—provides an alternate (and obviously bullshit) version of Mrs. Alving’s story, Manders is far too eager to believe Jakob, glad that he no longer has to challenge his perception of Mrs. Alving’s late husband as a good man.
While it may be tempting to think with relief that we’ve long abandoned the sexist pitfalls that Pastor Manders falls into, the truth of the matter is, many people still are loath to consider that a man they know and like could be abusive. It’s far easier for someone to question a woman’s lived experiences of abuse than it is for them to reconsider their impression of a man accused of abuse. This uncomfortable truth is made more recognizable by Nicholas Rudall’s translation, which stays true to Ibsen’s realism with dialogue that sounds entirely natural to contemporary audiences.
Needless to say, this is not a happy play, and the ending scene between Alving and her son Osvald (Danny Gavigan) will leave you heartbroken for her. But if there’s any comfort to be found in this play, it’s in the fact that Ibsen clearly had a deep empathy and respect for the tribulations—and resiliency—of women. The men in this play are vice-ridden or weak-willed; Mrs. Alving is iron-willed, yet still has a strong capacity for empathy and love, especially for her son. And when Regina makes a questionable decision at the end of the play, you still understand that she is merely trying, pragmatic as she is, to make the best decision she can out of the narrow options allotted to her in a stifling patriarchal society.