Review: Ghostlight Portrays a Chicago Family Tragedy That’s Healed Through Theater

Chicago-based actor Keith Kupferer is your ultimate every-man performer. I’ve seen him in many stage roles over the years (The Humans, God of Carnage, Support Group for Men, Cake) but he’s had a significant film and TV career too (Widows, Road to Perdition, The Dark Knight). His list of credits is a mile long. In the new film Ghostlight, he’s perfectly cast as Dan Mueller, husband, father, construction worker…actor. He’s a man grieving over a family tragedy who finds no outlet for his bottled-up emotion. The film is quite funny in places and offers a balance between angst and pleasure.

Ghostlight is a beautiful film with an original script written by Kelly O’Sullivan and directed by O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson—both Chicagoans and life partners as well as filmmaking partners (Saint Francis). O’Sullivan is an actor as well and performed with Kupferer in The Humans, in its 2014 production by American Theater Company. 

Though it becomes a film about theater and its capacity for healing, Ghostlight is a film about family, and in more ways than one. Tara Mallen, founder and artistic director of Rivendell Theatre and Mrs. Kupferer IRL, plays Dan’s wife, Sharon, a music teacher. And their daughter, Katherine Mallen Kupferer, plays their troubled teenaged on-screen daughter Daisy, whose disruptive behavior and frequent f-bombs get her in trouble in school and mask her true sadness. (Daisy says to her parents late in the film, "I feel like I'm not allowed to be sad.")

At the root of the family members’ need for healing is a recent family tragedy. We don’t learn the nature of that horrific event until late in the film—but it’s clear that it’s been devastating for all three family members and that it’s rupturing family ties as well. 

One day, as Dan is running a jackhammer in the street, a woman comes out of a nearby building to complain about the noise. Dan tells her it’s not his decision and he needs to work until 6. After seeing Dan storm with rage at a passing driver, the woman comes back to ask Dan for help. She leads him into a darkened storefront, where he finds himself in a world he never imagined. The woman is Rita (Dolly de Leon), the founder of a community theater company that’s producing Romeo and Juliet. Why does she need Dan’s help? To fill out the cast. He’s intrigued, and reluctantly, even fearfully at first, becomes an actor, keeping it from his wife and daughter. Rehearsals proceed and Dan finds friendship and, gradually, healing for his grief as he spends time with the group of lively thespians.

Dolly de Leon (Triangle of Sadness) is a non-Chicago cast member and she gives a powerhouse performance as Rita, a tiny but committed actor; she’s the fiery spirit of the theater company, along with Chicagoan Hanna Dworkin, who plays Lanora, the director of R&J. De Leon was born in the Philippines and was active in the Filipino arts community for years with stage, TV and screen credits. Her vibrance and feistiness in Ghostlight complement Kupferer’s closed-off male persona. 

Rita tells Dan later why she asked him to help. “It seemed like you might want a chance to be somebody else for a while.”

Daisy follows her father one night and confronts him in a hilarious scene at rehearsal. When Sharon finds out where Dan has been spending his spare time, she asks, “Why didn’t you tell me?” “It’s embarrassing,” Dan says. “I did it to take my mind off things.” 

The most engaging and skillfully handled aspect of the film is the way it presents details about the family tragedy. It’s hinted at in various ways from the beginning but it’s not until the third act that we learn what happened a year ago. The Shakespearean tragedy that Dan participates in mirrors his family life and finally enables him to open up and let his emotions flow. We probably all know men of a certain generation (and women too) who think the best way to handle grief is to bottle it up and soldier on. Kupferer turns in a stellar performance as Dan learns how to handle his grief and rage. 

The film’s title refers to the single bulb that theater companies leave on when a stage has gone dark. It started as a practical habit but, over the years, has become a well-known theatrical superstition.

The roster of Chicago theater actors in Ghostlight goes well beyond the Kupferer family. The community theater cast includes H.B. Ward (Flood, The Realistic Joneses, Chicago Fire) as Jonah, and Tommy Rivera-Vega (La Havana Madrid, In the Heights) as Lucian. Dexter Zollicoffer (Joe Turner’s Come and Gone) as Greg plays the priest in Romeo and Juliet; he sings a lovely version of “Stand by Me” as he performs the secret marriage ceremony. Hanna Dworkin (Empire, Chicago PD) as Lanora directs the play and also leads the cast in loosening up and intimacy exercises. We get cameos by Charin Alvarez (¡Bernarda!, Anna in the Tropics) as the high school principal and Cindy Gold (Wipeout, A Christmas Carol) as Daisy’s therapist. Tony-winner Deanna Dunagan makes a one-line cameo in the ladies room on opening night. Steppenwolf stalwart Francis Guinan (Downstate, Relative) makes an appearance so brief you might miss him as Janitor Fran. If you’re a Chicago theater fan, seeing some of your stage favorites on screen is part of the pleasure of Ghostlight.

Ghostlight opens Friday, June 14, in theaters, including the Music Box Theatre

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Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at nancybishopsjournal.com, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.