Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
Ghost-Writer and Iron
Set early in the 20th century, Ghost-Writer focuses on Myra Babbage, a professional typist hired by Franklin Woolsey, a famous novelist, to type out his novels as he dictates them. Repressed and timid, Myra eventually learns to assert herself with this man of letters; she eventually becomes Woolsey's most trusted confidante, nudging out his social-climbing wife. But when Woolsey dies in the middle of a sentence, Myra's job does not end. She continues to type Woolsey's words as they come to herbut how are they coming to her? Is she just trying to gain publicity? Or does she really have a connection to Woolsey, and his words, that can't be explained with words?
Woolsey is his own worst critic, painstakingly reviewing his own work to get the words just right. Myra prods him to be at his best, whether forcing him to ignore a ringing telephone or arguing over whether a particular clause should end with a period or a semicolon. And when the words don't come to him, he shuts his eyes and listens to the "music" she makes with her typewriter keys. It's an exquisite moment, and shows just how skillfully Hollinger can depict the creative process. Myra presses Woolsey to make an event's depiction on the page seem "truer than it actually happenedwhich is the only truth that matters." It's a point that's accentuated by David P. Gordon's set design, which shows walls and furniture in forced perspectivenot true to life, perhaps, but true to memory.
Her hair in a bun and her vibrant eyes hidden behind wire-rimmed glasses, Myra seems repressed and prim, but her narration (as she addresses an unseen interviewer) lets the audience know what really makes her tick. Megan Bellwoar's vibrant performance makes Myra a lovable and empathetic presence. Bellwoar's precise, careful diction proves how much Myra values language even before she secures her typing job. And every once in a while she slips in a warm, winning grin to let you know how much she's enjoying herself.
Douglas Rees is appropriately imperious as Woolsey, pouring out his soul to the world yet wary of revealing his true feelings. And Patricia Hodges is excellent as the wife whose emotions turn from haughty to hurt. Her character seems cartoonish at first, but Hodges makes you see the pride and the heartbreak that drive her to protect her husband's legacy.
James J. Christy's direction is concise and elegant, befitting the low-key characters. There's nothing flashy about the staging or the performances, and that helps make Ghost-Writer so touchingly genuine. There's not a wasted movementor, in Hollinger's script, a wasted word.
Ghost-Writer runs through November 7, 2010, at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 North Second Street. Ticket prices range from $29 to $48 (with group discounts available) and may be purchased by calling the Arden Box Office at 215-922-1122, online at www.ardentheatre.org or in person at the box office.
Rona Munro's Iron is about a relationship that tests the bonds of family. Like Ghost-Writer, it deals with the importance of truth, and the difference between truth and memory. It's a harrowing and powerful piece of work, and director Deborah Block's wonderfully atmospheric production puts the audience right into the heart of darkness.
Iron is set in a Scottish prison, and opens with 25-year-old businesswoman Josie paying her first visit to Fay, her mother, who has been locked up for fifteen years. Fay is serving a life sentence for killing her husband (Josie's father), and Josie wants answers to the questions she's been avoiding all that time. She also wants to fill in the gaps in her own past, saying that she doesn't remember anything that happened before her eleventh birthday. Fay helps Josie fill in the gaps, and after months of weekly visits, their connection becomes a strong one. But Josie's love blinds her to how dangerous and manipulative her mother is. Josie soon finds herself willing to do anything for Fay, but the cost may be too high.
Iron runs well over two hours (including intermission), which might seem like a lot for a play that mostly consists of conversations between two characters. But Iron is compelling and riveting all the way through. In part that's because this is first and foremost a story about realistic characters; Munro slips in a bit of social criticism about the harsh conditions that prisoners must endure, but doesn't let it overwhelm the story. But it's also because of Block's staging, and the striking set design by Laura Jellinek. The action takes place on a cinderblock and tile catwalk in the middle of a sparse room, with two small playing areas at either end. The audience sits on either side of the narrow area, only a few feet away from the actors. This helps makes what could be a static, talky play seem dynamic and urgent. (Iron is the first show to be staged at Studio X, a small performance space in Theatre Exile's South Philly headquarters.)
What makes Iron especially worthwhile is Catharine Slusar, whose performance as Fay is a marvel. She starts out jittery and anxious, suspicious of the bewildered young woman she barely knows, but she soon proves that, even though she says she suffers from "erratic impulse control," she is always in control of every situation.
As Josie, Kim Carson is nearly as good, slowly lowering her guard, always pushing to learn more, and not realizing why she is so driven. There are also good turns from Michael Hagan and Caitlin Antram as a pair of dedicated prison guards who give hints about what life is like on the outside. (All four actors do Scottish accents that are convincing but never too thick.)
Iron never lets up. Slusar inhabits her part completely, and you'll feel as if you've inhabited her prison cell along with her.
Iron runs through October 10, 2010, and is presented by Theatre Exile at Studio X, 1340 South 13th Street. Tickets are $20-$32 and are available by calling 215-218-4022 or online at www.theatreexile.org.