WILLIAMSTOWN — Some of the most celebrated actresses of our time have embraced the opportunity to play Helene Alving, a woman hemmed in by societal expectations and haunted by the actions of her long-dead husband but trying to finally wipe the slate clean of both, in Henrik Ibsen’s “Ghosts.’’
Liv Ullmann played Mrs. Alving on Broadway in 1982 (a production marking the Broadway debut of the now-notorious Kevin Spacey). Later that decade came portrayals by Vanessa Redgrave in the West End, followed by Judi Dench in a BBC film, with a cast that included Kenneth Branagh. In 2014, Lesley Manville won an Olivier Award for her work in Richard Eyre’s London production.
Now it’s Uma Thurman’s turn, and she does not disappoint.
In Williamstown Theatre Festival’s revival of “Ghosts,’’ set on a country estate in Norway in the late 19th century, Thurman enters into the role of Mrs. Alving as if Ibsen wrote it for her, delivering an expertly modulated and generally sterling performance. And a good thing, too, because she is headlining a frustrating production hobbled by a misguided staging and a flaccid portrayal of a crucial supporting character.
But first: Thurman. It was just a couple of years ago that she returned to the stage after an absence of nearly two decades, making her Broadway debut in Beau Willimon’s “The Parisian Woman.’’ If you narrowly associate this fine actress with “Kill Bill’’ and “Pulp Fiction’’ — you shouldn’t, because her film career has always been about more than that — you might be surprised by the quiet depth and subtle shadings she brings to the role of Mrs. Alving.
When Mrs. Alving is speaking with her painter son, Oswald (Tom Pecinka) — who has returned home after years away, suffering from an illness that is part of his father’s toxic legacy, and about to present his mother with an awful choice — Thurman’s voice vibrates with an anguished tremor, and there is a pleading in her face. But when Mrs. Alving is being subjected to a sanctimonious sermon about her track record as a mother by Pastor Manders (Bernard White), or enduring the company of the scabrous carpenter Jacob Engstrand (Thom Sesma), Thurman turns her face into an enigmatic mask and withdraws into the stillness of a statue. When dealing with her maid, Regina (Catherine Combs), about whom she has reason to feel ambivalent, Thurman’s Mrs. Alving walks a line between peremptory command and solicitude.
It’s easy to see why “Ghosts’’ left audiences reeling and critics sputtering when it premiered in 1882, given that its plot elements include spousal infidelity, sexually transmitted disease, a child secretly born out of wedlock, euthanasia, and the inklings of an incestuous relationship. But as with this play’s predecessor, “A Doll’s House,’’ Ibsen brought a fierce moral clarity to “Ghosts.’’ It’s not hard to discern traces of “Ghosts’’ in Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,’’ which also focuses on a family haunted by guilt and by an intergenerational burden.
But Ibsen possessed an ability — rare in a male playwright of his time, and not terribly common in ours — to imagine and dramatically render the inner life of a complicated woman struggling against social constraints. The resonant silences of Thurman’s performance communicate that interiority.
Now, about those aforementioned problems with the Williamstown production. Director Carey Perloff has chosen to position composer-musician David Coulter onstage throughout the performance, standing no more than 10 or 15 feet behind Thurman and the other actors and plainly visible to the audience as he plays instruments that include a xylophone, timpani, wine glasses, and a saw.
To be sure, this tactic can work and has worked in certain kinds of shows, but when deployed in an intense domestic drama that demands close attention, like “Ghosts,’’ it creates a distraction that undermines the cast’s attempt to build a world onstage. If the idea was to suggest the inescapability of the past via a spectral presence who makes the unseen seen, it doesn’t work (though Coulter’s eerie music itself functions quite well in establishing an elegiac or ominous mood).
Then there is the lackluster performance by the normally reliable White in the crucial role of Pastor Manders. The clergyman is a family friend to whom Mrs. Alving once was (and may still be) attracted but who consigned her to years of misery by persuading her to return to her unfaithful husband. Now, he is spearheading the dedication of an orphanage in the deceased’s honor.
Even granting that Ibsen intended Pastor Manders to be an embodiment of religious hypocrisy, the clergyman needs to possess at least a trace of magnetism, or Machiavellian darkness, or something. White’s Manders, however, is a tedious, one-dimensional scold; it is impossible to believe that Mrs. Alving ever would have been friends with, much less romantically drawn to, this censorious prig. Moreover, White’s rhythms were off on opening night, draining energy from his exchanges with Thurman in Act One.
As the maid Regina, Combs is too restrained. Oswald twice describes her as “full of life,’’ but we get little sense of that (even allowing for the possibility that Oswald is engaging in some idealized projection). Sesma, as Engstrand, brings a welcome edge of danger to every scene he is in. Pecinka cuts a compelling figure as Oswald Alving. The actor captures both the self-dramatizing theatricality of a young artist and the all-too-real, crushing burden of what Oswald calls his “mortal dread.’’
But it is Thurman who carries this production, with confidence and grace. She gives us a Mrs. Alving who, as she strives to erase all vestiges of the lie that was her marriage and start her life over again, finally knows her own mind and her own worth. The tragedy of “Ghosts’’ is that her self-knowledge may not be enough.
Play by Henrik Ibsen
Translated from the Norwegian by Paul Walsh
Directed by Carey Perloff
Presented by Williamstown Theatre Festival. At Main Stage, ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance, Williamstown. Through Aug. 18. Tickets $75. 413-458-3253, www.wtfestival.org