Hand from the Grave
About midway through Circle Theatre’s tense psychological drama Ghost-Writer, Myra Babbage (Emily Scott Banks), secretary to a renowned novelist, describes her boss’ methods: “Only by changing the facts could he make something truer than it actually was.” This ironic insight turns out to be key to Michael Hollinger’s script about a mild-mannered typist (Banks) who claims she’s channeling the spirit of that writer, who’s recently deceased, to finish his final book. Memory distorts facts to create the reality that we desperately want, and the audience is aware from the beginning of the show that Myra — who is recalling everything in flashback –– is a very unreliable narrator of events. Director Robin Armstrong, who’s earned a reputation for helming manic farces at Circle, turns her attention to Hollinger’s character study of thwarted desire and scores a spectacular evening of theater.
At a brisk 90 minutes with no intermission, Ghost-Writer is far less plot-centric than Opus and Incorruptible, the previous Hollinger plays produced at Circle. The new one feels like an especially precise short story and is based on a curious scrap of information that the playwright found: Theodora Bosanquet, typist and personal assistant to Henry James, insisted for years after his death that the author was still dictating stories to her from beyond the grave. In Hollinger’s play, set in New York in 1919, the amanuensis Myra has earned tabloid headlines for her claim that bestselling novelist Franklin Woolsey (John S. Davies) has tapped her to complete the book that lingered unfinished after his fatal stroke. A skeptical public dismisses this as the delusion of a worshipful employee who can’t face her boss’ sudden death, but two people aren’t so amused –– Woolsey’s publisher and his widow Vivian (Lois Sonnier Hart). Both are alarmed at the pages Myra is producing –– her words not only eerily mimic Woolsey’s style and themes but take them to new literary heights. As Vivian puts it, the work is “at once like him but utterly unfamiliar.” The key to Myra’s insights into her employer’s talents is found in how they worked together while he was alive, a collaboration that, according to Myra’s somewhat questionable reminiscences, went through various stages of intimacy, from professional to personal to downright erotic (if still chaste). Or so she keeps defensively asserting in her many direct addresses to the audience.
Nothing particularly earth-shattering happens in Ghost-Writer. The play switches seamlessly between past and present conversations that transpire in a sparsely furnished room. An L.C. Smith No. 8 typewriter, a candlestick telephone, and a gramophone with a large horn speaker almost become supporting characters, distracting Myra and Franklin from their intense literary and emotional attachments. Thanks to director Armstrong and her trio of perfectly cast performers, however, the verbal exchanges crackle with quiet power and meaning. Circle’s Ghost-Writer is one of those rare shows in which the audience holds its collective breath during the actors’ long pauses, waiting for slight changes in tone and facial expression that will signal the often desperate undertow of feelings in each situation.
As the author, Davies does an excellent job of portraying a man boxed in by his own imagination, a solitary artist who subtly manipulates the women around him because it’s the only way he knows how to relate to other people. As Woolsey’s long-suffering wife Vivian, Hart nicely telegraphs the frustration and hostility of a person who’s dedicated her life to a talented but ultimately unavailable man. Her competitive feelings toward the younger, fetching Myra are portrayed with wounded dignity and tragic eloquence.
But the real heart of Ghost-Writer lies in Banks’ remarkably layered performance as a woman whose professional devotion takes her to the edge of sanity. An actress who’s displayed considerable range in various North Texas productions, Banks could’ve easily played the part as a brave romantic who’s resigned herself to social ostracism for the sake of her employer’s legacy. In that interpretation, the show would’ve been a sweet but forgettable trifle. Instead, Banks lends a delicious obsessiveness to her words and actions as well as an unabashed carnality in the tiniest moments –– watch her face glow lustfully as she recounts the first time Franklin Woolsey placed a spoonful of sugar in her teacup. Her aching, slightly deranged take on Myra turns Circle’s Ghost-Writer into a brainy, scary little tale about adults haunted by the passions they can’t express.
Thru Sat, Nov 10, at Circle Theatre, 230 W 4th St, FW. $20-30. 817-877-3040.