By Jordan Wright
As MetroStage celebrates its three Helen Hayes Awards for last year’s “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris,” theatergoers are treated to another brilliant show by producing artistic director Carolyn Griffin, who has spent seven years searching for the perfect vehicle for actress Susan Lynsky.
At long last she appears to have found it with “Ghost-Writer.” She chose well. As the last production for the season and the premiere of the play in the metropolitan area, it’s a spellbinding piece for the three-actor cast — most especially for its leading lady.
Franklin Woolsey (Paul Morella) is a renowned novelist married to a proper Victorian lady (Helen Hedman). Moving in the rarified circles of aristocratic Old New York, he draws from its foibles like a hawk preying on a field mouse.
Before giving away any more, a bit of background: Playwright Michael Hollinger was inspired by Henry James’ relationship to his real-life secretary, Theodora Bosanquet, and used it as a vehicle to inform a narrative that examines the art and act of writing.
Woolsey’s newly schooled, but oh-so-clever typist, Myra Babbage (Lynsky), is a hunter of sorts too — one who dallies with her target while keeping him enthralled. The play is set in 1919, the age of women’s advancement in the workplace and the beginning of their post-war freedoms. The 19th Amendment, which eventually gave women the right to vote, was then reaching the House floor for approval and women were experiencing a newly achieved independence. It is no coincidence that Hollinger sets the play in this power-shifting moment.
Babbage is a woman with ideas about writing and editing, and she isn’t afraid of appearing presumptuous in order to express herself. She jousts with the author and his obsession with commas and dashes, periods and semicolons until he begins to trust her judgment and her way of turning a phrase when she sometimes finishes his sentences. (A curious clue in the punctuation of the play’s title is revealed at the outset and explains Babbage’s successful insinuation into Woolsey’s mind.)
We meet the duo in Woolsey’s study. The decor is the austere Mission style befitting a serious writer of the late Victorian period. A Royal typewriter is front and center with the primly dressed Babbage at its helm. She has been recently hired as Woolsey’s amanuensis — a taker of dictation — her fingers poised to record his every word.
He quickly grows addicted to her presence and the staccato sound of her typing and cannot think clearly when she pauses awaiting his next dictation. She devises a phrase that she types over and over again until he’s able to recapture his train of thought.
“Don’t tell me what it is,” he insists.
And her secret gradually becomes her power.
“The waiting is part of the work,” she explains. “We waited together.”
Thus begins their long and very close collaboration as Babbage, addressing the audience as if we were her inquisitors, explains how, after Woolsey’s death mid-novel, she is able to complete his work by divining his words.
“No one else has an intimate relationship with his style,” she insists, emboldened by their relationship and not wanting to abandon the book to Woolsey’s wife, Vivian, nor his publishers.
From time to time, Babbage and Woolsey are visited by his jealous wife. Can you blame her? When the socialite tries to replace Babbage by learning to type, a hilarious scene ensues and Hedman is at her best as the dithering pupil of Babbage the Taskmistress.
The piece is wonderfully tongue-in-cheek comical and its trio of actors are superbly in sync. But it’s Lynsky as the stalwart heroine who captivates. She is magnetic, giving an enthralling portrait of a young woman gaining her footing in that brave new era, confident and well educated, polite yet outspoken, secure in her expertise and unafraid to stand up to anyone. She is utterly enthralling in the role.
“Ghost-Writer” runs through June 2 at MetroStage, 1201 N. Royal St., Alexandria. For tickets and information, visit www.metrostage.org.