Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Reverend’s Reviews: Hauntingly Good

On the surface, Michael Hollinger’s Ghost-Writer has all the trappings of your standard ghost story: a recent death, a spectral presence, and a frequently gloomy setting complete with periodic flashes of lightning outside the window. However, this extraordinary play, now having its West Coast premiere at Long Beach’s International City Theatre (ICT) through September 16th, ventures much deeper to a place where the potentially-supernatural is less worrisome than incomplete manuscripts, the proper use of language and punctuation, and unrequited love.

Acclaimed writer Franklin Woolsey (a fine performance by veteran actor Leland Crooke) has been dead several months but his devoted young assistant Myra Babbage (Paige Lindsey White) continues to go each day to his office. Franklin left what was certain to be his greatest work unfinished. Myra, though, strives to complete it with the help of what she claims is Franklin’s spirit speaking silently to her. Word of their phantom collaboration has gotten out to the local, early-20th century press, much to the consternation of Franklin’s grieving widow, Vivian (Cheryl David, who last appeared at ICT as Gertrude Stein in the acclaimed West Coast premiere of Loving/Repeating).

Throughout Ghost-Writer, beautifully staged by ICT’s always reliable Artistic Director caryn desai (sic), Myra remains poised at her typewriter but addresses an unseen skeptic sent to debunk her claims. She relates the story of her initially professional but increasingly personal relationship with Franklin via flashback segments and confessional monologues. Franklin, meanwhile, is omnipresent in both flesh & blood and post-death incarnations. As both Myra and the audience gradually realize, the ghosts that haunt us the most are seldom made of ectoplasm.

Ghost-Writer was inspired by an anecdote Hollinger discovered about the novelist Henry James’s secretary, in which she claimed to continue receiving dictation from her late employer from beyond the grave. Also, Hollinger’s mother had passed away shortly before he came across the story, leading him to an intensely personal reflection on what he terms “the presence of absence.” The results of Hollinger’s reflection are powerfully evident here, leaving most of us in the opening night audience simultaneously exhilarated and misty-eyed. The play, which deservedly won a 2010 Edgerton Foundation New American Plays Award and the 2011 Barrymore Award, doubles as an excellent treatise on the writing process. If there is any interest remaining in literary art on Broadway, Ghost-Writer must receive a staging there in the near future.

ICT’s production also boasts a true “star is born” revelation in Paige Lindsey White. Her performance as Myra is absolutely riveting, and proves the actress perfectly adept at hitting a full range of emotional and intellectual notes. White is a member of several Los Angeles acting ensembles and has had several television credits. Here’s hoping and praying she breaks out soon. Her obvious talent and emotional honesty should be shared with as wide an audience as possible.

Less spooky than deeply moving, ICT’s Ghost-Writer is guaranteed to haunt viewers long after the curtain has closed. To purchase tickets, please call (562) 436-4610 or visit the ITC website.

Reverend’s Rating: A

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.

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