We continue our series of introductions to the famously strong female characters of playwright Henrik Ibsen that appear in Val Caniparoli’s Ibsen’s House in Extremely Close April 12-14 at Peter Martin Wege Theatre.
Next, we meet Mrs. Helen Alving from the 1881 three-act play Ghosts which premiered in Chicago, Illinois.
Like many of Ibsen’s plays, Ghosts was the subject of great controversy, especially because of its inclusion of sensitive topics including religion, venereal disease, and infidelity. While Nora in A Doll’s House deals with breaking the standing moral code, Ghosts illuminates the tragic consequences of conforming.
You’ve journeyed a long way out of town to call upon Mrs. Alving (played by company dancer Alexandra Meister-Upleger), and nothing about her home lends a sense of ease after your extended travels. There is a chill in the air and the cold rain soaks through your overcoat as you hurry down the path to the front door.
You’re welcomed in by Regina—the young maid Mrs. Alving has always treated as a member of her own family. As you warm your hands by the fire, Mrs. Alving arrives, her image wearier than your memory of her: The lines around her mouth are deeply creased and a droop interferes with the proud posture of her youth. She is the portrait of a woman who has spent years holding herself together.
She places a book in your hand: It is not a text you would ever be caught reading.
“I admire your curiosity and thirst for information, Mrs. Alving, but really, I couldn’t possibly read a piece of literature that deals with—”
“Now, I know that Pastor Manders would never approve,” she interjects, “But I’ve found all sorts of information in this tome that I resonate with…”
She carries on talking about the radical novel, but you find yourself distracted by the smile dancing on her lips as she refers to Pastor Manders. It was rumored they were quite fond of each other and that she fled to him for refuge from her tumultuous marriage to the Captain, who is now deceased. But prior to his death, their son, Oswald (played by company dancer Isaac Aoki), was born and she and the Captain moved out here and the rumors were quelled.
“Oh! Oswald is doing beautifully!” She proclaims with a positivity that seems out of place in this dreary estate. “You should see the latest painting he’s been working on; it’s just wonder—”
She seems to have lost her voice, as well as her cheery air; Oswald is an artist who is now suffering due to the sins of his father.
“I have to tell you,” she whispers hoarsely. “All is not well. Oswald is contaminated. He’s been so tired, listless, since he’s returned home from abroad. He can’t work on his art. His joy for life has been infected. His doctor told him there is no chance of recovery. I tried so hard to save him, to keep him away from the influence of his degenerate father. I spent my life covering up my husbands’ infidelities and loose affairs. I had heard the talk of—was Nora her name?—the vile rumors about that woman who left her family. People would have spoken of me that way! I had to maintain order, uphold the law of my marriage, protect my son and our family’s reputation.”
“You chose nobility,” you offer, attempting to assuage her obvious distress.
“I chose cowardice,” Mrs. Alving refutes. “And for what? Devotion to duty did not result in devotion from my Captain. Now, Oswald has the sickness. This is my last chance to be brave. I must choose whether to hold my son to the duty of life or to help him towards freedom.”
A silence falls between the two of you. Is she hinting at the unspeakable? You’re not quite sure you understand her. You don’t know what to say.
“And now, I must ask you to take your leave. Regina will escort you back to town. Oswald, come say goodbye to our guest!”
Regina and Oswald appear at the staircase. For a moment, standing in the gloomy shadows of the hallway, their resemblance is striking. Regina steps out of the darkness with your jacket; she seems eager for you to leave.
“Goodbye Mrs. Alving, Oswald,” you nod to the mother and son who stand on the stoop, waving to you. You take one last look at the eerie estate, and when you turn back for a final wave the two have vanished.
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