Here's a play that creeps into your consciousness on little cat feet, so quiet and unassuming, so slow-moving at first, so indifferent to the flashier aspects of conflict and plot, and finally so emotionally absorbing that after you've seen it, you find yourself being visited as you drift off to sleep at night by an ambiguous figure, a woman who keeps asking, in gently despairing tones, for your help with something. Something that never gets defined. Or at least, that's what happened to me.
Ghost-Writer is set in the early years of the twentieth century. The story is told by a demure, gray-clad young woman called Myra Babbage, a typist who has worked for years with Franklin Woolsey, a prominent writer, taking dictation as he feels his way through his novels. Although she is smart and has a certain stubborn tough-mindedness, Babbage has become a kind of extension of Woolsey, subsuming her identity to his, and slowly, over time, giving up independent interests and even her chance of romance and marriage to the work. But she is also an important contributor. Her active involvement begins with a comical refusal to type a semi-colon he dictates, a semi-colon she insists should be a full stop. The rhythm of her fingers on the typewriter keys becomes an increasingly necessary part of his creative process, and she even has a phrase-rhythm that helps when he's stuck. Need I tell you that Babbage is an unreliable narrator, despite all her apparently self-effacing and convincing certitude?
Woolsey dies during one of their work sessions, but Babbage keeps typing. She says the words come from him and she sets out to finish his final novel — which she knows will be his masterwork. But Woolsey's wife, Vivian, who has been upset about the relationship from the beginning, is intent on proving Babbage a fraud. It's during her interactions with Vivian that you come to fully understand Babbage's cold-eyed and steely determination.
Presented by the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company through February 16, Dairy Center for the Arts, 2590 Walnut Street, Boulder, 888-512-7469, www.boulderensembletheatre.org.
We never know if Babbage is really channeling James Woolsey, so in tune with his thinking that she can re-create it — or is simply a skilled mimic. She may be the true savior of his legacy or a kind of succubus, feeding off his fecund creativity. The novel she's so intent on finishing is the story of a sculptor and his muse, and many visual artists share a deep current of understanding with their models, so that the final work is shaped not only by the model's physical form, but by her heart and soul as well.
Jim Hunt is a convincing Woolsey: dignified, brilliant and slightly distant, but also a sheltered creature, a little naive about the world outside his work. Anne Sandoe's Vivian is piquant and often waspish, and you can sympathize with her dilemma in dealing with this young woman who has stolen away her husband's very essence. But the weight of almost the entire production rests on Myra Babbage, and Laura Norman delivers a performance in the role that's little short of miraculous. She makes an art out of stillness and silence, while her eyes and face reveal every current of the river of emotion within. Even the movement of her fingers on the clacking, old-fashioned typewriter keys is eloquent. Usually an actor who's supposed to be writing or typing just fakes it with a few taps or squiggles, but you can tell Norman is taking down every word of the fast-spoken narrative flying her way: The rhythms are right, and each full stop is a small, emphatic triumph. The fact that the music of the typewriter keys — and also the silences — plays such an effective and mesmerizing role can be attributed to the direction of Josh Hartwell, a playwright himself and someone who understands the power of language. Because ultimately that's what Ghost-Writer is about: writing and the connection of creating art to deep and raw human emotion, including that deepest emotion of all, love.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Which was perhaps what the woman in my dream was so urgently asking for.