Florida Stage is the "other" serious theater in the West Palm Beach area and although I've written often in these "pages" about the consistently fine productions of Dramaworks, I've only occasionally touched upon those of Florida Stage. This season is a significant one as they have now moved to the Kravis Center's Rinker Playhouse. Unlike Dramaworks, Florida Stage is bravely dedicated to new or relatively new plays, so that is an added risk, as if presenting serious theatre is not enough.
They opened the season with Cane which was followed by Goldie, Max & Milk. But with Ghost-Writer by Michael Hollinger which opens today (we saw a preview), Florida Stage will have its first big hit of the season, drama at its best. Of course, it doesn't hurt that the play is by a well-established playwright, and even though this is the southeast premiere, it was vetted on the stage in Philadelphia at the end of last year.
Ghost-Writer apparently is not for everyone as a few people inexplicably left the performance right in the middle (there is no intermission). But if you cherish the nuances of language and how great staging and performing can turn little moments and glances into profound occurrences, Florida Stage has the play for you. As Louis Tyrrell, Florida Stage's innovative Producing Director said before the play, "it is an elegant play performed eloquently by the actors." Those words were not an exaggeration.
The play takes place in 1919, set in a studio apartment of a well-known writer, Mr. Woolsey, who hires an amanuensis, fresh out of typing school, Myra Babbage. She is obviously enamored of working for a renowned author. Their relationship gradually becomes more than just employer and employee, both developing affection for one another. It also progresses to the point where Myra can anticipate what Mr. Woolsey will dictate and will even interject her own opinion as to choice or word or punctuation. Stirring the dramatic pot is Mr. Woolsey's wife, Vivian, who is jealous of Myra, and displeased that her husband has set up this apartment (away from their home) for his work.
Every play needs a change catalyst, and in this one it is Mr. Woolsey's death before he has finished what might be his masterpiece. But after his death, Myra feels she can still channel his muse. Is it a ghost? Or is she simply looking to make a name for herself (as Vivian suspects)? Or did their relationship evolve to the point where the voice in the novel is really a collaborative one? Myra puts it to the audience to decide (or not to decide).
One thing that does not change is the role of the typewriter which, sphinx-like, sits in the middle of the stage, almost the fourth character in the play. At one point, when Mr. Woolsey is suffering from writer's block, he has Myra type "anything" just so he could hear the clatter of the Remington. Type it again he says as he stares out the window. And again. Finally, the words spring to him, just as the final words of the unfinished novel come to Myra after days of not feeling the muse (or hearing the ghost?), but not until she, too, has typed the "catch phrase" -- which Mr. Woolsey had entreated her not to reveal to him (and, therefore, not to us). What could it be?
The play slides back and forth from the present to the past, effortlessly, almost imperceptibly. The staging is like a delicate dance, the characters taking a position on stage (as Mr. Woolsey at the window) or gracefully gliding about each other to the point where Myra and her employer actually dance (ostensibly to familiarize Mr. Woolsey with a subject he needs to write about but clearly is unfamiliar with). The early 20th century set was developed with period piece precision and the three quarter round seating puts the audience in the action.
But to succeed with a play which is about language and understated emotions also requires fine acting. Considerable measures of the play are monologues given by Myra, played by New York City based regional actor, Kate Eastwood Norris, who deserves accolades for her carefully articulated and poignant performance. J. Fred Shiffman plays the restrained, somewhat bland but meticulous, Mr. Woolsey to a tee. Lourelene Snedeker does a fine job displaying Vivian's jealously and even conjures up our sympathy. Woolsey had once portrayed her as a vivacious, desirable woman in his first novel but he now shares his muse with another, younger, woman.
So was it a ghost? The beautiful language of the play itself provides a key, as spoken by Myra:
What is a ghost, in any case, but vivid memory, visiting when one least expects it? And aren't we all subject to haunting? The smell of liniment conjuring Mother at the bedside; the pair of shoes recalling a son or brother fallen in the fields of France? Surely memory is ghost enough...
Ghost-Writer runs at the Kravis Center's Rinker Playhouse until April 3.