“Ghost-Writer,” an extended one-act play that opens Spinning Tree Theatre’s season, has the quality of a poem with its shifting focus and nonlinear narrative.
Playwright Michael Hollinger, who studied viola at Oberlin Conservatory, has described his plays as being like musical compositions. “Ghost-Writer” does, indeed, ebb and flow like a piece of music, which the Spinning Tree cast executes with impressive skill under the direction of Michael Grayman.
Vaguely based on the relationship between novelist Henry James and his longtime typist, “Ghost-Writer has elements of a supernatural thriller but is really a delicately rendered love story. Its 1919 setting and literary background allows Hollinger to craft language that is formal, witty and, refreshingly, spoken in complete sentences.
Frederick Woolsey (Robert Gibby Brand) is a successful writer who does not literally write his novels but dictates them. Thus, he is always in need of a “type girl.” To replace his previous typist, he hires young Myra Babbage (Katie Kalahurka), who is so efficient that she easily keeps pace with Woolsey’s creative process as he spews complex sentences, including precise punctuation.
It gives little away to say that the play pivots on a simple question: Is Woolsey communicating from the grave? As he works on what will be his final novel, he is felled by a stroke in midsentence. But Myra keeps typing, insisting that he is still dictating from the afterlife in a manner she can’t fully describe. That does not sit well with his widow, Vivian (Jeannie Blau), who was jealous of Myra when Woolsey was alive and remains so after his death.
Hollinger begins his play with Myra at center stage, seated behind her antique manual typewriter, speaking to the audience. Hollinger casts the viewers in the role of interviewer — or interrogator — as Myra attempts to convey the strange circumstances that has allowed her to continue typing — not writing — Woolsey’s novel.
Everything that follows is in flashback, although not necessarily in chronological order. This is a deeply romantic play, rendered with humor and compassion, and at its heart is a love story. Brand and Kalahurka play the growing emotional bond between Woolsey and Myra beautifully and create a poignancy that permeates the last half of the play. All the eloquent dialogue and witty exchanges earlier in the piece lead to a sobering conclusion in which we see a bereft Myra hopelessly trapped in a reality nobody believes.
Kalahurka is a terrific comedic actress, and she uses those skills to good effect. But she also digs deep to give the performance an emotional power that is quietly astonishing. Her work, like the play itself, sneaks up on you.
Brand is in another role seemingly custom-made for him, and his patrician bearing and mastery of language are so natural that he makes it all look effortless. It isn’t, of course. He brings a phenomenal skill set to the stage.
I hadn’t seen Blau on stage in too long, and I’m happy to report that her performing abilities remain undiminished. Her rendering of Vivian is complex and nuanced. It’s easy to imagine how a lesser actress might have rendered Vivian as a one-dimensional foil. That was never a possibility with Blau in the role.
The design team has done wonders on the tiny — or should I say intimate?— Quality Hill Playhouse stage. Laura Burkhart’s scenic design and Sean Glass’s lighting create a deep-hued World War I-era New York apartment, crowded but orderly and richly detailed. Gary Campbell does a fine job with the costumes and allows himself a bit of extravagance with Vivian’s series of richly detailed dresses and spectacular hats.
The play keeps its emotional distance, thanks in part to the formal language and historical setting. There are times when we really want to be sucked in, but the show never really obliges us. It’s as through we’re watching through a sepia lens.
Even so, you cannot fault these performances. They bring this piece to life, which does not appear to be an easy thing to do.