Lesley Manville, the sublime British actress best known for her portraits of tragicomic women in the films of Mike Leigh, understands the power of silence and verbal lapse in a way that other performers simply don’t. In Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts—playing through May 3 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater—the critical plot turn occurs when Manville’s Helene Alving, a wealthy, liberated woman existing a century ahead of the play’s 1881 origin, confronts the town pastor (Will Keen) with a shocking revelation. “You have no idea…,” she tells him, pausing for an uncomfortable length, especially in the theater, before speaking again. “You have no idea…,” she repeats, pausing once more, letting the audience feel the space, before finally spitting out: “The truth.”
It’s a great moment, perhaps the best in Richard Eyre’s handsome-as-hell production, a huge success in London, where Manville won the 2014 Olivier Award for Best Actress. Her character and the pastor in that scene are engaged in a conversation about the orphanage that Helene is opening. She’s dedicating it in her husband’s name on the tenth anniversary of his death and her grown son (Billy Howle) has returned for the occasion. Suffice it to say, over the course of three tightly composed acts (the play runs 90 minutes without an intermission), things don’t go as planned. In a spectacular scene that shows the full scope of set designer Tim Hatley and lighting designer Peter Mumford’s achievement, the orphanage itself, Ibsen’s symbol of one big bourgeois lie, comes crashing down.
Ghosts famously appalled people when it first premiered, with critics slamming it as abominable and nauseating. By today’s standards, of course, the play’s references to incest and syphilis are absurdly tame, but the text itself is less dangerously feminist than A Doll’s House and not nearly the piece of clockwork drama that is Hedda Gabler. The pastor character is such a flaming religious hypocrite that Helene’s snarky rejoinders toward him seem too point blank. The power of Manville’s arresting performance, indeed, is in repose. The magnificent closing shot of Leigh’s 2010 film Another Year focused on her face—beautiful in its rumpled realness—and the final scene here also hinges on her choked silence within a rotten world that’s caused her nothing but misery. Wherever your seat may be in the theater, you’ll see the heartbreak in her eyes. B+