Written by Michael Hollinger, Directed by Charles Towers; Scenic Designer, Bill Clarke; Costume Designer, Deb Newhall; Lighting Designer, Dan Kotlowitz; Sound Designer, Jason E. Weber; Stage Manager, Emily F. McMullen
CAST: Rebecca Harris (Myra Babbage), Dan Kremer (Franklin Woolsey), Maureen Garrett (Vivian Woolsey)
Performances through May 13 at Merrimack Repertory Theatre, 50 East Merrimack Street, Lowell, MA; Box Office 978-654-4678 or www.merrimackrep.org
As its title implies, Ghost-Writer is a magical, mystical play that has a lot to do with the mysteries of the creative mind and the power of love to conjure words and images from thin air. Inspired by an anecdote about Henry James and his secretary, playwright Michael Hollinger imagined a story that combines the physically impossible with the psychically plausible to pay homage to our departed loved ones and the influence they maintain over us in absentia.
Merrimack Repertory Theatre Artistic Director Charles Towers directs Rebecca Harris, Dan Kremer, and Maureen Garrett in the company's season finale, an emotional piece that relies heavily on the credibility of the interplay between Myra Babbage (Harris) and her ghostly employer novelist Franklin Woolsey (Kremer). After Woolsey dies suddenly while dictating his latest manuscript to his typist Myra, she claims that his words continue to flow through her to her fingers flying across the keyboard. Woolsey's widow Vivian (Garrett) is skeptical at best, basically mistrusting Myra's intentions and envious of the secretary's alleged ability to be connected with her late husband.
Set in an austerely furnished room in New York City in November, 1919, Ghost-Writer moves comfortably back and forth between an interview Myra is having with an investigator to explain the unusual phenomenon, and flashbacks to the years she worked with Woolsey to illustrate how their relationship evolved. Myra is a charming tour guide, not without her flaws as we witness her ignoring the persistent ringing of the telephone that Mrs. Woolsey insisted be installed to save her climbing the stairs to her husband's writing space. Despite the decided difference in age and life experience between the young typing school graduate and her venerable employer, there is an ease in their banter that belies the obvious gap and grows into a mutual respect and caring.
Thanks to the talents of Towers and the design team of Bill Clarke (set), Dan Kotlowitz (lighting), Jason E. Weber (sound), and Deb Newhall (costume) our senses are bombarded with triggers that augment Hollinger's literary script. As she makes her case to the investigator, Myra's words capture the events of the past so vividly that Woolsey appears to us, not as ectoplasm, but large as life, staring out the window while standing motionless in The Shadows of the dimly-lit room. In the ghostly realm, Woolsey is animated, street sounds filter in, and the lighting becomes more brilliant, in contrast to the scenes where Myra sits in silence at the typewriter, awaiting the master's voice. In that stillness, Harris conveys Myra's longing for the words and the touch of Woolsey's spirit that will convince her that her mentor has not really left her alone.
The play on words in the title frames the two sides of the question: Is the secretary writing the manuscript under Woolsey's name, or is Woolsey's ghost, in fact, dictating the words that she types? Either way, it is clear that Myra's is a labor of love and devotion, at the same time as it allows her to deny the reality of the situation. In her final scene with Vivian, the widow cruelly points this out to her as she lashes out from her place of pain and jealousy. In that penultimate moment, clad in her black mourning attire, Garrett evokes sympathy for the character who has been seen as a social-climbing dilettante throughout. It is an impressive achievement.