Ibsen Revenant

Arizona Theatre Company conjures a fluid new translation of 'Ghosts.'

It's one week before Arizona Theatre Company's premier of Ghosts and playwright Lanford Wilson is jittery. Wilson did the translation of Henrik Ibsen's 1881 classic and he hasn't heard from its director and his longtime friend Marshall W. Mason in several days.

Hearing that Mason had talked about the production the night before, Wilson asks, "Is he enthusiastic about it?" then adds quickly, almost to himself, "Like what, he's going to tell a reporter it isn't going well?"

In fact, rehearsals are going very well, but the production hasn't quite followed Wilson and Mason's usual system of working side-by-side, honing dialogue and stage nuances together up until opening night.

Director Mason and playwright Wilson are a powerful team. The Pulitzer Prize- and Obie Award-winning duo is the longest-lived writer/director collaboration in American theater. Their latest project opens this week at ATC.

"Ibsen invented the modern theater," Mason noted between rehearsals. "This was only the second realistic play written. Ghosts took the scale of drama down to the human level. It's about internal psychological concerns rather than kings and queens and fate."

Mason is returning to ATC after his acclaimed production of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night three years ago. A professor at Arizona State University since 1994, Mason first surfaced in the experimental off-off-Broadway theater scene. Fresh from Chicago in 1965, he hooked up with Wilson, himself a recent Midwestern transplant, in Greenwich Village.

The two began creating a body of work that is still going strong. Their plays together include Hot L Baltimore, The Rimers of Eldritch, The Mound Builders, Talley's Folly and Fifth of July. In 1969, they co-founded Circle Repertory Theatre, whose numerous alumni include William Hurt, Jeff Daniels, Kathy Bates, Judd Hirsch and Demi Moore. Back then, Wilson had the luxury of writing at length specifically for actors he knew.

This time, however, he's working at a distance via e-mail.

"It's a little frustrating not being at rehearsals," Wilson admits. "But Marshall and I think so much alike that I'm sure he's standing in for me."

"What we have is Lanford in rehearsal without his physical presence, breaking pencils and smoking cigarettes and making audible sighs in the background, as playwrights are known to do," Mason says with more than a hint of nostalgia.

In fact, the two have an almost psychic connection when working together. Two years ago, in a workshop at Arizona State University for a new Wilson play with Mason directing, they spent the intermission dissecting the performance thus far. They talked in their unique shorthand about the lighting, the dialogue, the actors, covering volumes in just a few minutes. They never disagreed.

In directing Ghosts, Mason was offered his choice of existing versions. ATC artistic director David Ira Goldstein also gave the option of commissioning a new translation. Mason immediately proposed Wilson for the job.

According to Mason, Ghosts has long suffered from stilted translations.

"The main thing is, it really does sound like a new play," Mason says of Wilson's efforts. "It's speakable, which is a huge difference from the translations that were available."

Wilson says the thing he brought was the ear of a playwright, rather than the literal eye of a translator.

"I tried to translate it idea by idea, thought by thought," Wilson explains. "I wasn't reluctant to make it as lyrical as I could within logic."

In the play, Mrs. Alving tries to rewrite the licentious legacy of her dead husband by establishing an orphanage in his name. The local minister, Pastor Manders, assists. As she prepares for her triumph, son Oswald returns home from a bohemian life in Paris, carrying with him a terrible secret. Lurking throughout are Mrs. Alving's servant, Regina Engstrand, and her ne'er-do-well father, Jacob.

"Instead of calling him pastor," Mason noted, "which is what all the translations say, the first thing Lanford said was, 'We're going to call him Reverend Manders,' and you immediately hear the difference."

Actress Ruth Reid, who won kudos as the addict mom in Mason's Long Day's Journey, plays Helen Alving with secrets of her own to reveal. Jason Kuykendall, who played son Edmond in Long Day's Journey, returns here as Oswald. Rounding out the cast are David Kelly as Rev. Manders, Kelly MacAndrew as Regina Engstrand and Arizona favorite Bob Sorenson as Jacob Engstrand.

"As I read the play, it's very much about repressed sexuality between Manders and the Widow Alving," Mason believes. "This event of 20 years ago is smoldering underneath the whole relationship. To me, it's hot, so I wanted to take the starch out of Manders in the sense that this was a real human flesh-and-blood man who is on the brink, always, of breaking through and failing himself. In other productions I've seen, they have some old man who has not a scintilla of sexuality about him. I cast a very good-looking, romantic man."

Wilson agrees.

"It should be kind of hot in a couple of places," he says. "The characters throughout the play contradict themselves. They'll say one thing and then two pages later say the exact opposite. You don't see that very often in drama. They'll usually take a throughline that doesn't contradict itself."

Mason added, "This is very contemporary without being shockingly so. I think it's faithful to Ibsen without being Victorian."