GHOSTLIGHT – Review by Loren King

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This tender drama about a family grappling with grief is a paean to the transformative power of theater. If that sounds lofty, Ghostlight is anything but. It’s grounded in believable, well defined characters led by Keith Kupferer as Dan Mueller, a father fumbling through life in the wake of a tragedy but who begins to comes alive when he stumbles upon a community theater troupe and gets cast in their production of Romeo and Juliet.

Dan keeps his secret, seductive new life of table readings, rehearsals and all the highs and lows of readying an amateur show to himself. But soon his wife Sharon (Tara Mallen), feeling neglected and wresting with her own grief, and teen daughter Daisy (played by Kupferer and Mallen’s real-life daughter, Katherine Mallen Kupferer) whose rebellious behavior at school is an obvious indication of her anger and sadness, suspect that Dan is up to something. When it’s revealed that he’s in Romeo and Juliet, the play draws the family in and offers each a way to reckon with ghosts.

The film is the follow up project to Saint Frances from co-directors Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson. Besides the novelty of casting three real-life family members as the fractured Muellers, the film finds a lovely balance of heartfelt saga and the irresistible allure of backstage drama — it’s “Ordinary People” meets Waiting for Guffman.

The acting is superb top to bottom but the real star that emerges, in the play and in the film, is seasoned actress and troupe leader Rita (Dolly de Leon). It’s Rita who senses something in Dan and asks him to join the scrappy local company because, she tells him, he looks like he could use to become someone else. Rita knows she’s a bit old to play Juliet, but what’s the point of a volunteer, hardworking company if not to fulfill one dreams and play the great roles? Ghostlight is stocked with pleasures such as Rita and Daisy singing Rodgers and Hammerstein at a karaoke bar. The film celebrates creativity while also showing the disappointments and the limitations of low-budget, local theater.

It might be a bit schematic that Romeo and Juliet mirrors the family’s real life tragedy — the details of which are effectively revealed later in the film. But by letting Dan act the part of Romeo (a humorous accident), he begins to understand what happened and even to forgive himself. It’s a moving and unforgettable depiction of empathy and the enduring power and poetry of Shakespeare.

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Loren King

Loren King's features and film reviews appear regularly in the Boston Globe, Boston Spirit magazine and the Provincetown Banner. She writes Scene Here, a localfilm column, in the Boston Sunday Globe. A member of the Boston Society of Film Critics since 2002, she served as its president for five years.