Vicki Paris Goodman
Ghost-Writer is a celebration of the English language and so much more. The suspenseful play by Michael Hollinger makes its West Coast premiere to grateful, appreciative audiences at International City Theatre.
The single-act dramatic spellbinder couldn’t be more stunningly written. With a dream cast and ICT’s own directorial genius caryn desai [sic] at the helm, this production has everything going its way.
Ghost-Writer is set in 1919 in a New York City flat rented by famous novelist Franklin Woolsey (Leland Crooke). Woolsey acquires the space so that he can author his novels in a peaceful setting away from the home he shares with his insecure and apparently far-too-idle wife Vivian (Cheryl David).
He hires attractive, strong-willed, and secretarially ultra-competent Myra (Paige Lindsey White) to type his books as he dictates. Myra and Woolsey are literary perfectionists, both demanding control over punctuation, grammar, and phrasing until the two finally establish the optimal working boundaries for a successful collaboration. In other words, Woolsey mostly gives in, Myra having won his trust with respect to at least some of the “disputed domain.”
This wrangling between a famous author and his self-confident typist makes us see the two as extraordinarily unlikely equals, but equals nonetheless. Furthermore, Hollinger draws out Woolsey’s ever-softening humanity toward Myra in unexpected ways. For instance, the devoted Myra seems to make her work her entire life, save for Thursday evening dance lessons that she reserves as a condition of her employment with Woolsey. On a Thursday evening in which she stays late, he notes the time and almost affectionately admonishes her to be on her way to dance class.
But the main thrust of the story’s power, inspired by the real-life situation of author Henry James and his secretary, lies in what happens after Woolsey’s sudden death. Opposing the strong objections of Woolsey’s jealous widow Vivian, Myra stays on to complete the book she and Woolsey were working on when he died. It is left to the viewer to wonder whether or not Myra receives the words from Woolsey’s spirit. Or perhaps even she is unaware of a connection so deep that she has somehow become every bit the writer he was, and is therefore able to finish the book, unassisted, in his style and image. The truth of the matter remains delightfully unknown at play’s end.
Hollinger’s wonderful script should appeal universally to all theater-goers. But a writer, grammarian, or other literary individual, will take special pleasure in the dialogue’s sophistication and quality. The punctuation-intensive dictation that characterizes the first half of the play is more fun than I can say. (Truly, it is.)
White, whose role comprises what almost amounts to a one-woman show, is absolutely spectacular. Her every expression, from a subtle look askance to a roll of the eyes to a coquettish smile, rings true for its moment in the play. When she is concentrating on receiving the words from Woolsey beyond the grave (or wherever they come from), her head cocked slightly sideways and forward with closed eyes convince us she is drawing the inspiration she so patiently seeks.
Even so, White does not completely steal the show. Crooke’s Woolsey is stern yet compassionate. He even defers kindly to his wife of a love-starved marriage. A scene in which Myra teaches Woolsey the foxtrot is splendid in its tenderness.
The unhappy Vivian might have been portrayed as just one more vindictive wife among so many written stereotypically into other plays. But David’s Vivian is self-restrained, possessing a depth of understanding and reason that lends a sympathetic complexity, even likability, to the sad character.
Ghost-Writer is exquisitely staged in set designer Staci Walters’ well detailed drawing room. Sound man Dave Mickey’s audible typewriter strokes are haunting.
When Ghost-Writer ended, White was clearly unable to exit the emotion of her role in time to smile for her curtain call. When have you ever witnessed that in a performance?
Ghost-Writer continues at International City Theatre through Sept. 16. Tickets are $44 for Friday and Saturday evening performances and for Sunday matinees, and $37 for Thursday evening performances. Evening performances are at 8pm; Sunday matinees are at 2pm. ICT is located in the Long Beach Performing Arts Center at 300 East Ocean Blvd. Call (562) 436-4610 for reservations and information. Tickets are also available online at InternationalCityTheatre.org .