“Though many books are posthumously published, few are written that way,” one character deadpans in the Carbondale-based Thunder River Theatre Company’s new production of “Ghost-Writer,” presenting the crux of this captivating play.
The dead writer is novelist Franklin Woolsey, played by Thunder River founder Lon Winston. The play follows Woolsey’s relationship with his secretary, Myra, played by Valerie Haugen, and focuses on their connection as he dictates his work to her.
After he dies, mid-sentence, she continues his book. Scrutinized by the press, and under attack from Woolsey’s jealous wife, Myra defends herself and the continuing work against the skeptics who see her as a kook and, at best, a mimic.
Haugen’s nuanced and powerful performance won’t give you any easy answers, but it will certainly make you think. And Michael Hollinger’s play, running through Oct. 13 at Thunder River, builds Myra and Woolsey’s complex relationship by jumping between time periods and adding layer upon layer to its emotional intricacies. Is she aiming to be more than a typist for Woolsey? Is her love for the man or their work? Is she continuing the book because she can’t let go of him?
Woolsey’s wife, played by Eileen Seeley, is jealous and territorial, described aptly as “a master of the rhetorical question,” but she’s also an aspiring writer herself and she’s no easy-to-pin-down villain.
Set in 1919, the play has touches of the period — the old-fashioned typewriter, a phonograph, one pivotal ballroom dance scene — but isn’t encumbered by them, playing fresh for a 21st century audience.
For writers, or lovers of witty word play, and sticklers for punctuation especially, this is a must-see production.
An early emotional climax in the play comes during a disagreement over the use of a semi-colon.
Later, in an indication of Myra’s deepening affection for the author, she proudly declares, “Mr. Woolsey was exceedingly fond of my hyphen.”
It’s the most sexually charged hyphen you’ll encounter in theater.
“When I found it was a play about love and punctuation, I was instantly thrilled with it,” Haugen laughed after a preview performance in September.
As the pair’s relationship deepens, Woolsey stops telling Myra what punctuation to use in his work as he dictates, allowing Myra to supply it. His trust deepens and their minds meld in a way, and Myra then begins to anticipate the next words coming from Woolsey.
“It’s such a beautiful, subtle, elegant love story,” says Winston.
In conversation, Winston and Haugen — the company’s associate artistic director — are energetic and proud of their work, finishing one another’s sentences and speaking with both the experience of actors and the rich knowledge of theater connoisseurs.
The fictional Myra and Woolsey, it turns out, are rooted in historical examples of great authors, like Henry James and Joseph Conrad, who had secretaries they dictated to and who, over time, became something more like collaborators.
“They really did find they couldn’t write without them,” Haugen explains. “They were sassy, intelligent women who didn’t go the traditional life path of women at that time.”
James’s amanuensis, Theodora Bosanquet, went on to write books of her own and, after the author’s death, ran the International Federation of University Women and fought for women’s suffrage.
To that end, Thunder River is hosting a special matinee performance on Sunday, Oct. 7, as part of the Carbondale Council on Arts and Humanities month-long Support Women Artists Now (SWAN) series. Sunday’s performance will be followed by a poetry reading by Haugen, from her new book, “Naked Underneath.”
“Ghost-Writer” is a play of ideas, the kind of material Winston and Haugen savor delving into. It serves as something like a primer for the pair’s “Passionate Collaborators” series, launching this winter with their original play about George Burns and Gracie Allen.
As a director, Winston doesn’t block plays in the traditional sense, but gives his material a deep reading — aided by dramaturgical research — to produce full-bodied emotional characters. Hollinger’s richly imagined play gave them a lot to work on.
“There are so many ideas that Michael Hollinger has put in this play, in the text,” Winston says. “There were things three, four, five days ago that after six weeks of rehearsal you go ‘Whoa!’”
Hours before their first preview performance, in fact, Winston and Haugen had one of those “Whoa” moments — slowing down the pace of a scene where their characters share tea, to broaden its emotional implications.
The play sparingly uses music, but it doesn’t need a traditional score. The rhythmic clacking of the typewriter throughout offers a background sound that uncannily captures its moods and emotions.
Valley audiences may be familiar with Hollinger’s work by now. Thunder River produced his play “An Empty Plate in the Cafe du Grand Boeuf” in 2006, and earlier this year, at the Aspen Fringe Festival, the playwright himself held a reading of an in-progress work called “Hope and Gravity.”
Hollinger was a student of Winston’s, some 20 years ago, at Villanova University, and now holds the theater professorship Winston did before coming to Colorado and founding Thunder River. The pair have a tight artistic relationship, sending one another plays and providing feedback on them.
When Winston read “Ghost-Writer,” he immediately saw it as in ideal vehicle for him and Haugen.
“We have a great stable of actors in this valley that we use, but I’m always looking for plays that the two of us can do,” says Winston. “When I read this, I said, ‘It’s just perfect.”
“Ghost-Writer” opens Thunder River’s 2012-13 season, its 18th and its first since winning the Colorado Theatre Guild’s award for Outstanding Regional Theatre of the Year — the top award for regional companies in the state — in July.
The play opened Friday, Sept. 28, and runs Oct. 5, 6, 7, 11, 12 and 13. All performances begin at 7:30 p.m., except Sunday’s SWAN matinee, at 2 p.m.
Thunder River’s season continues with “Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol,” running Dec. 6 - 16, Eugene O’Neill’s classic “Long Day’s Journey into Night” Feb. 22 - March 9 and the Haugen-Winston original, “Passionate Collaborators: Burns & Allen” next summer.
For tickets and information call 970-963-8200 or visit thunderrivertheatre.com