The pair at the center of Ghost-Writer — a novelist and his typist — step well beyond the clichéd coupling of a man and his secretary. Correctly hyphenated in this particular context, playwright Michael Hollinger's fictional take on the relationship between Henry James and Theodora Bosanquet is a captivating and beautifully written tale of two souls, whose minds first meld in an act of punctuation.
Spinning Tree Theatre makes a strong start to its fourth season with this moving and frequently witty 90-minute one-act, being staged at Quality Hill Playhouse's small theater. Under Michael Grayman's astute direction, the three characters forming this love triangle play off one another with an absorbing, finespun suspense.
Feeling herself less a conduit than a collaborator, hired typist Myra Babbage (portrayed by Katie Kalahurka in a remarkable performance) talks directly to us about her role in the writing life of novelist Franklin Woolsey (Robert Gibby Brand), whose wife, Vivian (Jeannie Blau), is jealous of the long working days the two spend in a small rented room. Both women wish to penetrate this writer's solitude — "He is always somewhere else," Vivian says to Myra, "even when he is right in front of you" — and be part of the birthing of his books.
It's an artful dance that shifts frequently between present and past. (Segues are easily followed with Sean Glass' lighting, which lends a warm yellow tone to events remembered.) Facing the audience and sitting center stage at a black typewriter when the play begins — it's 1919 (Gary Campbell's period costumes are exquisite) — Myra seems to be addressing us but talks to an investigator there to watch her work. Franklin has recently died — he stands quietly nearby at the start, an apparition in low light — yet Myra, determined to complete his unfinished work, has continued to take his dictation.
"Though many books have been posthumously published," she acknowledges, "very few are written that way." Whether a medium or a writer herself, Myra clings to the famous novelist and his legacy. "You didn't come to hear me talk, but rather to watch me work, us work," she says. As the past comes to life, we hear and see that symbiosis in motion, the clacking of typewriter keys conveying an excitement greater than the mere act of writing.
All three actors here excel in layered performances. Kalahurka dominates in the play's primary role, if not also in the sheer volume of the words she has mastered. Her touching and quirky Myra pulls us in and propels us and the story along. Gibby Brand is note-perfect in a sensitive and nuanced portrayal that reflects Franklin's many aspects: employer, writer, husband, man. And Blau is both believable and sympathetic as a wife who feels cast out ("I used to recopy his manuscripts by hand — beside him, there in our study — sometimes while his ink was still wet," she recalls) and as an eventual widow facing the reality of loss.
That palpable vacancy after a death adds to the power of this quiet, understated and intelligent play, which held the opening-night audience at attention — no coughing, no stirring, just the occasional clinking of a drink's ice or the quiet in-and-out of a neighboring patron's breath. A writer's process and gift are reflected here not only in the depiction of Franklin Woolsey and his devoted typist but also in the skill of this playwright, who has rendered punctuation riveting and a book's composition an act of love.