BWW Reviews: International City Theatre's GHOST-WRITER
Is he or isn't he? That is the question of utmost importance in Michael Hollinger's GHOST-WRITER, especially since the "he" to whom the question refers is acclaimed novelist Franklin Woolsey (Leland Crooke) who happens to be dead. The answer concerns whether or not he is continuing to dictate his most recent unfinished novel to his secretary Myra Babbage (Paige Lindsey White) from beyond the grave, a possibility incomprehensible to Woolsey's wife, Vivian (Cheryl David).
Hollinger was inspired by an anecdote he'd read about the late 19th century novelist Henry James whose secretary, Theodora Bosanquet, claimed that she continued to receive dictation from Mr. James even after he died. Hollinger's mother had also recently passed away which caused him to ponder what happens in the space between; the empty space that's left when a loved one is no longer there.
The result of such reflection is GHOST-WRITER, a play that not only delves into the creation of language as art but also examines the bond between two people who share the intimacy of that creative experience in a way that no one else can understand secondhand. The elegance of Hollinger's writing quietly uncovers the vulnerabilities of its three characters without becoming forced or precious, while steadily building to a final scene that shudders with emotion.
The play, set in 1919, takes place in the rented room used exclusively for Woolsey's writing sessions, several weeks following his death. There Myra dutifully continues to wait for the words to come so she can complete his final masterpiece. And each week she delivers a new chapter to the bewildered publisher. Is she is telling the truth, sadly deluded, or purposefully making it up for some private gain? Woolsey's widow is convinced it's the latter and sends an investigator to find out the truth.
In a series of extended monologues that alternate with flashback scenes, Myra relates the genesis of their writing partnership and other significant moments of their shared history; his annoying habit of dictating punctuation along with the words and her eventual challenge of the practice; the way Woolsey would gaze out the window and watch the storm clouds gather and the way Mrs. Woolsey would sweep into the room unannounced to collect her husband for an unremembered lunch. The memories are humorous and touching, each one offering a unique bit of bittersweet insight into the complexity of the heart.
Director caryn desai guides the actors through the 90-minute character piece with a gentle hand and an attention to detail that allows for discovery at every juncture. Crooke creates a wonderfully fastidious Woolsey, whose turnabout is quite unexpected for a man of his age and at this time period, and David, seen predominantly as the interfering wife and "master of the rhetorical question," has her own delicate moments that reveal her longing for a husband who no longer notices her. Fashion plate that she is, she also sports two terrific hats designed by Anthony Gagliardi and dresses by costume designer Kim DeShazo that any turn-of-the-century woman would envy.
It is the thoughtful performance of Ms. White, however, that orchestrates the continuous ebb and flow of the story. A woman with perfect posture, precise elocution, and an uncanny ability to flip her emotions on and off at a moment's notice, it is within her ever-changing eyes that we see the true revelation of the playwright's intent.
Dave Mickey's nostalgic sound design is a particularly meaningful element of the production. Pre-show is filled with ragtime jewels - interestingly enough all composed by women - ranging from the slower, sweeter rags like "Piffle Rag" and "Poker Rag" to the more upbeat march sound of "Pickles and Peppers." And later, a pivotal moment in the play happens between Myra and Woolsey to the lovely "Romantic Rag." The minimalistic use of other sound cues creates tension when needed most and breaks the gentle flow of time with great effect.
As Myra clicks rhythmically along at her typewriter, it too creates a kind of music; so much so that Woolsey cannot think unless he hears the soothing sound of her fingers on the keys and the ratcheting hit of the carriage return. For a writer and his muse, there is no more intimate connection than that.
GHOST-WRITER, by Michael Hollinger, through September 16, 2012 at International City Theatre, Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 East Ocean Blvd., Long Beach, CA 90802. For reservations call (562) 436-4610 or visit www.InternationalCityTheatre.org.