note: entire contents copyright 2012 by Sheila Barth
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, people became fixated on the occult and after-life, trying to conjure up their beloved deceased in seances, through mediums, or channeling spirits on their own. Some claimed writers were contacted through automatic writing. They sat, pen or typewriter ready, to automatically allow the spirit to write “through” their physical being. In Michael Hollinger’s one-act, three-person play, “Ghost-Writer,” he explores whether Franklin Woolsey, a fictitious, famous New York City novelist in 1919, finishes his masterwork posthumously, by channeling his devoted secretary, Myra Babbage - so she claims. (Hollinger’s award-winning play was inspired by a story about writer Henry James and his secretary, who claimed he continued to dictate stories to her posthumously.)
Under Merrimack Repertory Theater Artistic Director-Director Charles Towers’ careful direction, Rebecca Harris as the unassuming, grammatically correct Myra Babbage is quietly commanding, her demeanor low-key, yet fascinating. She sits in a starkly furnished, rented office, poised before a typewriter, waiting for Woolsey’s spirit to dictate to her. She addresses the audience collectively, as a dubious visitor, whom Woolsey’s widow sent to observe and question her. She says she has waited three days for him to appear. To inspire her spectral muse, she types a secret message - or just types. He was motivated by the clacking of her typewriter when he was alive, she explains.
Standing on the side, staring out the window, Dan Kremer as Woolsey is a dignified gentleman of letters, whose words and punctuation flow freely.
Woolsey and Babbage’s work is frequently interrupted by the incessant, grating ringing of the newfangled telephone Woolsey’s jealous wife, Vivian, had installed so she could reach him. Maureen Garrett is sarcastically condescending to Myra. She resents his spending so much time away from home, writing. Vivian’s rivalry and bitterness extends beyond Woolsey’s death, when Myra claims he continues to dictate to her.
Deb Newhall’s handsome period costumes, Bill Clarke’s dreary set, Jason E. Weber’s battery of sounds and Dan Kotlowitz’s eerie lighting slowly ratchet up suspense as Myra relives the months before Woolsey’s demise. He emerges from the sidelines and shadows. He moves to center stage, dictating, interacting, editing his words, as their relationship grows.
Hollinger doesn’t define the ending, but gives subtle hints. At first glance, “Ghost-Writer” appears to be a simple story, but contains layers of interaction and the creative process.
There are some dead moments and repetition that could be trimmed, but the fine acting here holds interest captive - ghost or no ghost.
On Thursday, May 10, at 6 p.m., Friends of the Merrimack Repertory Theatre will hold their Spring into Auction fundraiser dinner, silent and live auction, featuring celebrity auctioneer Susan Wornick. For tickets and more information, visit merrimackrep.org.
BOX INFO: One-act, 85-minute drama, by Michael Hollinger,appearing at Merrimack Repertory Theatre, 50 E. Merrimack St., Lowell, through May 13: Wednesday, Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 4,8 p.m.; Sunday, 2,7 p.m. Post-show forum, May 10. Tickets start at $24. Senior, student, group discounts. Call 978-654-4678 or visit MerrimackRep.org.