Arden Theatre production tackles a tough topic with great dialogue, acting.
Sandy Kim and Logan White are truly A play about writing may not seem like a great idea—there’s a limited amount of drama in staring at a blank computer screen or sheet of paper. But the creative process is precisely what Michael Hollinger delves into in his subtly compelling new play Ghost-Writer, currently receiving its world premiere in a polished production at the Arden Theatre Company.
Easily the area’s top playwright, Hollinger has had more than his share of success (the marvelously amusing Incorruptible, the magical Tiny Island, and the probing, realistic drama Opus), and Ghost-Writer is the seventh of his plays to make a world premiere at the Arden over their 16-year relationship. It’s his sparest work to date, and this story about the solitary and often lonely world of the writer is also his most personal play, reinforced by the fact that the central role is played by his wife, Megan Bellwoar.
Set in 1917, the story focuses on the novelist Franklin Woolsey (Douglas Rees) and his secretary Myra Babbage (Bellwoar). Myra is Woolsey’s typist (note: the usage of first name for the woman and last name for the man is part of the play, we’re not just being patronizing), and at first she acts as little more than a machine dutifully transferring his dictated novel onto paper. As their relationship deepens, however, her role changes to that of a muse and a collaborator—and eventually more.
Although there's a lot of debate over the merits of commas vs. semicolons and other grammatical minutiae, Hollinger’s writing is agile and the characters are compelling enough that our attention never wavers.
When Woolsey dies midsentence, Myra continues the unfinished novel—not as author, but as typist, insisting that the writer is still dictating the novel to her from beyond the grave. “They are his words. I come. I sit. I wait for the words to come,” she explains. This claim doesn’t sit well with his widow (Patricia Hodges), who is understandably possessive of her husband’s memory.
Everything we see in Ghost-Writer is through Myra’s eyes and colored by her memories. The room in which the pair work is dominated by the items that were most important to her—a gramophone, a typewriter, a teapot, the view through the window of clouds symbolically laden with rain that refuses to fall, a telephone that rings with annoying regularity—but, in David P. Gordon’s scenic design, their prominence is subtle and not immediately obvious. Same with the positioning of Myra’s desk, chair and typewriter, which seem to jut out slightly from the rest of the stage—it allows Myra to simultaneously exist in both the past, where most of the play’s action takes place, and the present, being interviewed by an unseen guest.
Director James J. Christy never seeks to imprint his own vision on the play—no eerie lighting to suggest a possible spectral presence, for example. Instead, it’s an intimate, quiet production that puts the focus on Hollinger’s words and the strong performances of Bellwoar and Rees.
As Myra, Bellwoar is the essence of restraint as a woman who keeps her emotions in tight check. Clad in an unflattering frock and old-school granny glasses that scream schoolmarm or old maid, Myra chooses her words carefully and rarely shows passion. Only once does she get angry, and the depth of her sudden rage is thrilling—Bellwoar plays the moment beautifully, letting loose with a torrent of popping “p’s” so ferocious it sounds like she’s spitting firecrackers.
Rees is likewise excellent as the novelist. His commanding presence gives him a larger-than-life quality, yet Rees’ Woolsey is so resolutely cordial that he’s never intimidating. He shows genuine concern when he keeps Myra working late, causing her to miss a dance lesson with her never-seen boyfriend. As Woolsey and Myra draw closer, Rees allows us to see Woolsey’s guilt as he struggles with thoughts of infidelity.
The question of whether Myra is actually receiving the words via literary séance or just a lonely woman desperate to hang on to Woolsey’s spirit is never answer, but that’s OK—Ghost-Writer is a play of questions, not answers. Likewise, Hollinger isn’t offering explicit information on the origins of creative inspiration. In this quiet, gentle play, “I come. I sit. I wait for the words to come,” seems as thorough an explanation as we’re going to get.
Through Nov. 7.
Arden Theatre Company,
40 N. Second St.
Calendar: Aug. 26-Sept. 2