Helene Alving, the conflicted widow at the heart of Ibsen’s masterwork Ghosts, may not be as well known or as coveted a role as other iconic Ibsen heroines (Hedda, Nora, Solvieg). But she has been brought to life memorably by the likes of Liv Ullmann, Vanessa Redgrave, Judi Dench, and Lesley Manville.
In director Carey Perloff’s 2019 production at Williamstown Theatre Festival, with a new translation by Paul Walsh, Uma Thurman took the role, to good notices. Now, in a version of that same production at Seattle Repertory Theatre through May 1 (also available to stream), Helene is played by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio (she/her), a seasoned film and TV actor best known for a string of films in the 1980s (The Color of Money, Scarface, and The Abyss), who got her start onstage at the Public Theater and on Broadway. Her most recent stage appearance was in the Roundabout’s The Winslow Boy in 2013.
I spoke to Mastrantonio a few weeks ago, just after Ghosts had opened. Her costars include David Strathairn and Thom Sesma.
ROB WEINERT-KENDT: I may have watched The Abyss multiple times in the theatre when I was a younger person, so I guess I’d say I’m a longtime fan.
MARY ELIZABETH MASTRANTONIO: That’s why we made those movies.
I see from your bio that you’re from Chicago. Was that where you started doing theatre?
Specifically, I was raised in Oak Park, which had a really thriving theatre department at the high school. I saw my older sister in a play there when I was a little thing—I must have been about 7. So before anyone was self-conscious, we just had these amazing facilities; we had three theatres, and we had the most remarkable staff, who taught us and led us and reprimanded us when we misbehaved, and really put a lot of opportunity in front of us. We learned a lot. Whether you knew you were learning or not, you learned a technique—you learned how to learn. So the seeds were planted early.
I thought I was headed into music, because I was a singer first. That’s where I felt comfortable, or most safely hidden. It never dawned on me to become an actor, or just an actor. If I can shout out to PBS, I was probably meant to be doing my homework on some Sunday afternoon, but upstairs in our very small house I was watching what turned out to be Joe Papp’s Shakespeare in the Park, A.J. Antoon’s production of Much Ado About Nothing starring Sam Waterston and Kathleen Widdoes. I was mesmerized; I was just, as my husband would say, gobsmacked, just completely taken in. It never dawned on me that it was a part of what I could do. Then a few years later I had an audition at the Public Theater, and I was climbing this set of stairs to get to this audition, and this poster was revealing itself as I got closer to the landing. It was the poster to that production of Much Ado About Nothing. And I thought, “Oh my God! How did this happen?” I still don’t know how it happened.
And then you came to New York as an understudy for Maria in West Side Story.
Yeah, and you learn a lot watching from the wings. I was an understudy again on Amadeus. I just started working; it all happened really fast. You know, when you’re 23, wide-eyed, and you can hit a high C rolling out of bed, it’s not difficult to play a 23-year-old wide-eyed person who can hit a high C rolling out of bed. It’s as you get older that you think: Hang on a minute now; there’s so much that’s not in my wheelhouse. But it was when I was with actors who were rehearsing that I thought, how do they do this? How do they know to ask that question? How are they so free in themselves? That’s what I wanted to learn how to do. That’s what drew me in, when I realized how little I knew about what they were doing.
So you mostly learned by doing.
I learned by doing, and then there was a name circling about at the time, Harold Guskin, so I went to see him. It was unnerving, because Harold lived in this small apartment, and you just sat opposite him. He had a way of getting you out of yourself and making sure that the voice coming out of your head sounded like you, and you just dealt with text, but not while staring at it and reading off of it, but really looking up. You know, sometimes the hardest thing for young actors is to actually look someone in the eye, to pull your hair back off your face. And don’t come all glammed up to rehearsal. That’s not what we’re doing here. Just show up. It’s not about being self-conscious. Quite the opposite, actually.
It’s a long way from there to Helene Alving. How did you come to this role?
Funnily enough, of all the Ibsens I’ve actually seen, I’ve seen this one twice. I lived in London for decades, and they do plays there, a lot of them. I remember one one season, there were three major productions of the Scottish play in London. So I saw both versions of Ghosts in recent years. One was a really incredibly abridged version; we bought the copy of it in the lobby of the theatre, and honestly, it couldn’t have been more than 80 pages. And then I saw the one that Lesley Manville did—actually I saw that at BAM. But I bought the play again and I read it. And I thought, there’s so much I missed when I was in the theatre—it moves quickly, and without putting a gong in the audience and lighting with pin spots like a melodrama, you think: Did they just say what I think they said? So I’ve read it many times.
And then Carey Perloff, who is indefatigable, got in touch and said, “We’re going to do this new translation by Paul Walsh, we’ve done it at Williamstown, I’d like to do it at Seattle Rep.” I’ve worked with David Strathairn before, I’ve worked with Thom Sesma before. It was nice and very rare that I work with people that I actually know that I’ve worked with before. And I read it and I reread it. And we showed up in Seattle at the end of February.
How has it been to work on this play, and in this version?
I have to say, you read the darn thing and you think, ah, that reads pretty easily, and then you open your mouth to say it, and blech—that didn’t come out at all well, I need to look at that again. I mean, that’s our job, to figure out what we’re supposed to say so that it comes out of our heads sounding as if we’re humans. Because there’s no plot, right? It’s a lot of opinions dressed up as conversation. I mean, things do happen, or have already happened—shall we say, things are revealed. It’s a tricky one. It’s beautifully translated, though, by Paul Walsh. There are some lines in it that are just so beautiful. And the way he’s whittled it down, he’s left enough, but there’s not a lot of fat on it. Though this one actually includes the relationship that some productions cut—the allusion to the relationship that Manders and Alving had before, when they were single people.
It’s definitely a play freighted with backstory—indeed, it is often credited for creating the template, later used by O’Neill and Miller and others, of plays about damaging family secrets and guilt coming to light. Do you fill in a lot of that backstory in your head or write it out: what the late Mr. Alving was like, etc.?
You can do that, but you can’t play any of that. It gets in your way. Young actors will always be, “So what’s my motivation?” The motivation is, he says to stand up, you stand. If one sits and kind of takes in what the other actors are saying all the time, you’re behind for your cue. So everyone has to be just a bit on the balls of their feet to keep this thing moving forward. Because there’s a lot of memories—there’s lot of, “I’ll tell you a story,” but you can’t get reflective, you’re just going to tell the story, and however these facts land on the audience is great, but I’m not going to wax nostalgic about any of it. You have to keep things pushing forward. You know, it’s like in music, where even if you’re playing adagio, there’s an inner thing that’s keeping you moving forward, otherwise you fall back on your heels. Everyone here has an agenda. They’re all generous and selfish people. Everyone cares about everyone—ish.
This play has a really bleak ending, even for Ibsen. But just like you can’t play the backstory, you can’t anticipate the ending.
It’s true. It’s compartmentalized: “We’re just going to deal with this thing.” Sometimes I forget where the scene goes, so I think, I suppose I’m just going to have to listen and see what the next line is. It’s funny. I worked with an actor once who was going on and on about his backstory; he was like, “I think I used to row boats,” and I’m like, “That’s great if you’re going to enter the stage backwards.” It’s really irrelevant. You can only be who you are; and people never know what’s going on with people. Unless I come in with a prosthetic limb, or I come in with my wife—you know, that’s a backstory. But if I just walk into a room without my wedding band, what do you know about me?
Do you have to shake off the bleakness of this material each night? Does it stick with you?
It’s funny, I think all of us have found that, as exhausting as this play is, we’re so awake afterward. It will be 1 in the morning and we’re all wide awake wondering, will I ever fall asleep?
We’re wired somehow. Because there’s something so oppressive in it; it’s heavy duty, but I’m not there to weep and wail, and you don’t want to watch me cry for two hours. That’s not what it’s about. I have a post-it note on my mirror: “Don’t sentimentalize it, just get on with it.” You’ve lived enough of a life where this will resonate with people if you just tell the truth. Just tell the story; stop worrying about it. If it affects me, it’s going to affect them. Can I say this? American acting is to sentimentalize things. There’s way too many tears happening. Sometimes I want to stand up in the audience and say, “Are you all right? Take a break—you don’t need to do this for me.” But, you know, I’m also the person who wants the nets left up at the circus.
The title doesn’t obviously refer to actual ghosts, but I wonder: Have you had any experiences with or beliefs about ghosts?
Something actually did happen at my kitchen sink in New York a few months ago—I won’t describe it, but I looked over at a friend of mine who was standing behind me, just over my shoulder, and I said, “Did you see that?” She said, “Yeah, did you?” I said, “Yeah, was that your mother?” And she said, “Not this time.”
But no, these ghosts are all the little chirping voices in your head that say, should you, shouldn’t you, are you, aren’t you. There are several words in the play—words like “broken” or “depraved,” that have different meanings now than they once did. Then they meant syphilitic, meant you had a wasting disease due to your own lack of discipline, your own proclivities. So those ideas are there, and they’re metaphors, and without taking out a drum and beating it, we hope it’s clear.
Rob Weinert-Kendt (he/him) is the editor-in-chief of American Theatre. firstname.lastname@example.org
Creative credits for production photo: Ghosts written by Henrik Ibsen, translated by Paul Walsh, directed by Carey Perloff, with music by David Coulter, scenic design by Dane Laffrey, costume design by David Israel Reynoso, lighting design by Robert Wierzel, sound design by Victoria Deiorio, intimacy direction by Ian Bond, stage management by Stina Lotti, assistant stage manager: Tori Thompson
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