It’s always a challenge to present a play (or film) about a writer that actually works for the audience. There’s little intrinsically exciting about watching someone typing away as an inner voice dictates–or is there?
That Michael Hollinger is able to make the act of creation quite compelling in his new work, Ghost-Writer (onstage at Florida Studio Theatre), is a tribute to his own craft, both as a writer and a musician/composer. The dialogue of Ghost-Writer (the hyphen is there for a reason, but I’ll let you figure it out) is frequently written with an innate ear for musical rhythms, and it’s surprising how the ringing of a telephone or the clacking of a typewriter can become part of an overall symphony.
A typewriter, you say? Yes, Ghost-Writer is set in an earlier time, one where a “typewriter girl,” here named Myra Babbage (Amy Tribbey), can be hired straight from school for the speed with which she can handle dictation. That dictation comes from a writer, Franklin Woolsey (Colin Lane), whose words can pour out in a torrent or, sometimes, come to a sputtering end as he waits for inspiration.
And waiting is what Myra is doing as the play opens–waiting for dictation to come from beyond the grave. For Woolsey has died with his latest novel incomplete, and she swears (and we believe in her own belief from the outset) that he is using her to finish it. Woolsey’s widow (Hollis McCarthy) is less convinced; an aspiring writer herself, and a somewhat neglected wife, she’s been jealous of Myra’s closeness with her husband from the start. And it’s just too much for her to accept that he would choose to communicate with Myra from the hereafter.
Myra has, in fact, been more than a secretary (if less than a lover) to Woolsey, over time becoming increasingly important and valued as a collaborator–at least as she explains it to us. Their relationship is presented from her point of view; Woolsey does not speak to us, as she does, and in fact says relatively little that is not straight from his writing process. But Hollinger (and director Kate Alexander) make the situation quite an intense one, presenting in just under 90 minutes a frequently riveting look at the pains and pleasures of birthing a completely new piece of art.
That intensity is also due in large part to Tribbey’s performance as Myra; she runs the gamut from initial quiet subservience to her employer to ever increasing devotion to both him and his work, and by the end of the play she holds us spellbound with just her subtle shifts of mood and body language.
With the other two actors, it’s harder to decide the merits of their performances. I found McCarthy to be overdoing it initially, with too much brittle laughter, but toward the play’s close she had me empathizing with her more real persona. As for Lane, it’s again hard to tell if his fevered delivery of the author’s prose style–but rather blank slate as a human being–is an actor’s choice or more a deliberate intention of the playwright. But then, that mystery may be part of the point, too.
In any case, Ghost-Writer engages and entertains. It continues on FST’s mainstage through May 29; for tickets call 366-9000 or go to floridastudiotheatre.org.