Film Review: “Ghostlight” — Stages of Grief

By Peter Keough

A movie about an amateur theater company’s production of a classic play taps into the universal truth of irremediable and ineluctable loss. And there isn’t a dry eye in the house.

Ghostlight. Directed by Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson. At the Coolidge Corner Theatre, the Boston Common 19, the Kendall Square Cinema, and the Causeway 13.

Dan (Keith Kupferer) in Ghostlight. Photo: Luke Dyra/IFC Films

The play within a play has been an artifice since at least Hamlet. Likewise the play within a movie scenario in which the production of some theater classic has mirrored the themes and conflicts of the film as a whole is also a well-established convention. I’m sure Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be (1942) is not the first in this subgenre, and more recent additions include Louis Malle’s Vanya on 42nd Street (1994), Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman (2016), and Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car (2021). A common theme in such films is how the process of play-acting can serve to ameliorate, if not redeem, such traumatic experiences as loss, grief, loneliness, heartbreak, or, in the case of Lubitsch, the destruction of one’s country.

Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson bring a refreshing blue collar twist to this scenario. Rather than focusing on professional thespians, their gritty Ghostlight features as its protagonist Dan Mueller (Keith Kupferer), a Chicago construction worker who is beset by a host of troubles.

At the start of the film he and his wife Sharon (Kupferer’s real-life partner Tara Mallen) have to attend a meeting with the principal of the artsy high school their daughter Daisy (Kupferer and Mallen’s real-life daughter Katherine Mallen Kupferer) is attending. It seems their fiery, foul-mouthed 15-year-old has physically assaulted a teacher. It’s not the first time they’ve been called in for such incidents, and when Daisy storms out, her parents are left begging the equally harried principal not to expel her. Meanwhile, the whole family is stressed out about a mysterious upcoming legal deposition, the details of which are undisclosed.

Back on the job at the construction site, Dan patiently endures an insulting verbal assault from a neighborhood woman complaining about the noise. His self-control holds until a punk-ass driver in a BMW harasses him and he finally loses it. He pulls the guy from the car (Dan is a big guy), and things are about to get really ugly with onlookers’ cell phones at the ready when he somehow cools off. You can see where Daisy gets her temper and her taste for dramatic confrontations.

Despondent after his outburst of rage, Dan’s unlikely rescuer is the stranger who had been harassing him for being noisy a moment earlier. Rita (Dolly de Leon), a 50ish and pixie-like spitfire, asks him to come help her with “something.” She invites him into the back room of a for-rent storefront, and there begins the film’s descent into artifice, reflection on the nature and purpose of artifice, and an occasional and unfortunate drifting toward implausibility, contrivance, and emotional manipulation.

A scene from Ghostlight. Pictured clockwise from lower left: Tommy Rivera-Vega, H.B. Ward. Charlie Lubeck, Keith Kupferer, Alma Washington, Dexter Zollicoffer, Hanna Dworkin, Dolly De Leon. Photo: IFC Films

In these cramped and funky confines Rita and her troupe The Rube Mechanicals are rehearsing a performance of one of the Bard’s plays. You’d think that given Dan’s overwhelming “sea of troubles” an apt play might be Hamlet or Timon of Athens. But the mostly long-in-the-tooth cast are working on a staging of Romeo and Juliet. At first dubious, Dan is intrigued by Rita’s explanation that the theater is a safe space where, for a brief period, he can be someone else and by doing that he will be able to confront and resolve the conflicts and seething, repressed emotions of his real life. Tentatively, he takes on the age-appropriate role of Lord Capulet but later, after some backstage intrigue, he is promoted to play Romeo opposite Rita (who is, as it turns out, an embittered but still incurably empathic former New York actress) as Juliet.

This leads to the expected farcical misapprehensions of impropriety by Daisy and Sharon. More dubious, though, is how the play uncannily mirrors the family’s history as revealed through their ongoing legal procedures and therapy sessions, the theatricality of which the film underscores. But the coincidental connections end up going beyond any inquiry into the nature of artifice and that strains the narrative’s credibility. Furthermore, at the risk of divulging spoilers, the backstory also introduces a racial element that tends to complicate the motivations of everyone involved, raising questions the filmmakers fail to acknowledge.

Be that as it may, the play is the thing that matters in the end, and The Rube Mechanicals’ production proves as surprisingly accomplished and affecting as the show in Christopher’s Guest’s Waiting for Guffman (1996). A powerful and nuanced cast makes the difference, not just the principals but the supporting players drawn from the local Chicago theater scene. Kupferer especially, who conveys the blunt physicality and intermittent, sly self-awareness of the late Brian Dennehy, and de Leon, with the playful steeliness of Geneviève Bujold, achieve a tragic catharsis in their death scene. “Here, here will I remain,” his Romeo says to her seemingly moribund Juliet. “Here I will set up my everlasting rest.” A movie about an amateur theater company’s production of a classic play taps into the universal truth of irremediable and ineluctable loss. And there isn’t a dry eye in the house.

Peter Keough writes about film and other topics and has contributed to numerous publications. He had been the film editor of the Boston Phoenix from 1989 to its demise in 2013 and has edited three books on film, most recently For Kids of All Ages: The National Society of Film Critics on Children’s Movies (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019).


  1. Nancy Smith on June 24, 2024 at 8:42 am

    What?!!! Racial element? I don’t know what the writer is talking about. Sorry, I loved the movie.

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