Based upon Henrik Ibsen’s classic tragedy, Ghosts is a scathing commentary on 19th century morality; this adaptation is set in Northwest Pennsylvania in 1910. While the widow Helen Alving puts the finishing touches on the orphanage that will serve as a memorial to her late husband, her estranged son Oswald returns home from San Francisco. Oswald and his ideas about love and marriage clash with those of the devout Father Manders, Mrs. Alving’s spiritual advisor and partner in the orphanage. During the course of one rainy evening, the Alvings, their priest, maid, and carpenter delve deeply into the nature of truth, family, and the ghosts that surround them.
Here’s an except from the first chapter of 2011′s Ghosts:
The fire wasn’t his fault.
Even if it was, there was no way it could be proven. Although Jacob Engstrand, one of the carpenters working on the nearly completed orphanage, had been accused on more than one occasion of being careless with matches, the official story was that a pile of sawdust in the carpenters’ shop caught fire. Luckily no one was hurt and there was no damage other than a few scorched timbers. No one had seen Engstrand with a match in his hand, so nothing could be pinned on him.
He had also been accused on more than one occasion of overindulging in alcohol, but that didn’t seem to hurt anyone but himself. Engstrand was a taciturn man, prone to fits of silent contemplation while he worked. The foreman and Engstrand’s peers respected his diligence and thoroughness as a carpenter, but there was something odd about him that they couldn’t quite place. It was as if he lacked some gene that everyone else possessed, a deficiency that caused him to remove himself from most conversation and social interaction—that is, until he had a few drinks, and then you couldn’t shut him up. He’d ramble on about anything and everything until someone shepherded him home, where he’d collapse into bed fully dressed. He’d often wake the next morning and head straight to work, which accounted for the tattered nature of his clothes.
He’d lived in Erie his entire life. Born in the fall of 1864, just as William Sherman was leading confederate troops on the infamous march to the sea some 800 miles south, Engstrand had been apprenticed to a master carpenter as a teenager, and learned his craft well: before he turned 20 he helped build Hamot Hospital at the foot of State Street; later, he participated in the construction of Saint Peter’s Cathedral on West 10th and Sassafras. His grandfather was part of the shipbuilding crew that James Madison tasked with constructing a naval fleet in order to wrest control of Lake Erie from the British during the War of 1812. Engstrand’s father had worked the railroads, which flourished in the Erie area in the mid-nineteenth century, but after the Gauge War and standardization, he decided that his son Jacob should follow in his grandfather’s footsteps and learn carpentry.
Jacob met Joanna in 1885 and loved her from the moment he saw her; while it took her some time to warm to him, once Joanna became pregnant in 1889 they were married shortly thereafter. He’d done everything in his power to raise their daughter Regina as a proper lady, but she’d learned everything she needed to know about manners and society from her mother, who worked as a maid for the Alvings, Erie’s most prominent family. When Regina was just a child, Joanna carted her along to the Alving house and Mrs. Alving welcomed Regina like one of her own. By the time of Joanna’s passing five years ago, Regina had already taken over her mother’s duties; she was now maid to Mrs. Alving and lived with her in the big house on West Sixth Street.
It was up to that very house that Engstrand trudged, through the pouring rain, the day after the sawdust-pile fire. The storm had forfeited his afternoon work for the day, and he had important things to discuss with Regina. The girl had all but disowned him and his drinking had forced him into his own personal exile. He walked with a barely noticeable limp, dragging his battered left leg slightly behind him. It hampered his gait, but Engstrand hardly even noticed it anymore. He didn’t even know when he’d injured it—one day his left leg simply didn’t work as efficiently as his right. Like most things, Jacob Engstrand took his disability in stride, even when the fellows at the Plymouth tavern teased him, suggesting that he’d hollowed out his own leg so he’d have a place to stash a fifth of whiskey.
Engstrand approached the front door of the enormous house, one of the oldest in Erie County. It had always intimidated him—it stood as a bastion of wealth and status that he’d simply never acquire or even fully understand. At the same time, the giant brick dwelling also held a special place in his heart, for it was where Joanna had worked all those years, and where Regina worked now. Knowing that he could shuffle up the walk and lift the heavy brass knocker and Regina would be summoned to his presence bolstered his heart and his resolve, giving him hope and reassurance. He swore that one day soon he’d quit drinking for good, clean himself up, start his own business. She’d have to come home then.
With those grand schemes in mind, Jacob Engstrand lifted the brass fist and let it clang against the door; it resounded with an echo like a distant rifle shot. He slid the worn leather hat from his head, holding it to his breast as a gentleman does when he enters a fine house, even as the splattering rain beat down on his graying hair, matting it to his skull. On his walk up to the door he’d seen a few lights burning in the windows; even if Mrs. Alving wasn’t home, Regina was certain to be there. He heard footsteps approaching the front door, and even if he hadn’t been in the house dozens of times previously, he could name the wood from the sound alone—the house’s atrium had been laid in red oak, harvested from an old-growth forest in central Pennsylvania, just northwest of Williamsport.
The footsteps ceased just on the other side of the heavy door, and Jacob found himself holding his breath. He gasped as the door swung inwards, revealing Regina, bathed from behind in soft yellow light. She wore a simple dark cotton dress and white apron, and her brown hair was tied back atop her head in a loose bun. She was 20 years old, radiant, and a spitting image of her mother. Engstrand wanted to reach out, hold her close, and let her know that everything was going to be all right—or perhaps he hoped she’d tell him the same.