Manitoba·Review

Graceful and moving, Ghost Light is a sweet sendoff to a formidable spirit

Shawn Wright's solo show has the occasional stumble, but it is ultimately a sweet and touching sendoff to a remarkable woman — and a worthy tribute to a formidable spirit.

Solo show at Prairie Theatre Exchange sometimes stumbles, but tells a touching story of a son and his mother

Actor/writer Shawn Wright plays both himself and his mother, Regina, in his one-man show Ghost Light, presented at Prairie Theatre Exchange in January 2020. (Leif Norman/PTE)

In the theatre world, a ghost light serves a couple of purposes — one practical, one more mystical.

On the practical level, it's a light left on a stage at the end of the night to keep the next person wandering into the theatre from stumbling around in the dark.

On a spiritual level, it's intended to provide a welcoming light to help a theatre's resident ghost (every good theatre has at least one) find their way to the stage to relive their favourite roles once everyone else is gone.

And Ghost Light is an apt title for actor/writer Shawn Wright's solo play. It stumbles on occasion, but is ultimately illuminating — and it welcomes a vivacious spirit to the stage.

The play, which premiered in 2016 and now comes to Winnipeg at Prairie Theatre Exchange, is a requiem for, and ode to, Wright's mother, Regina — the matriarch of a large Catholic family in New Brunswick and "an amateur actor of some renown," Wright tells us.

She is a character larger than life, but made real through Wright's vivid storytelling and a polished performance that sees him transform seamlessly into the character of his mother.

She's the source of a seemingly endless number of tales that could be tall, but have just enough detail to sound real — from literally hauling a young Shawn to community theatre rehearsals to retracing the steps of O.J. Simpson during a visit to Hollywood.

Wright delivers his show with a raconteur's skill for good storytelling. (Leif Norman/PTE)

Much of what we learn about Regina we see in exchanges between her and Wright in the nursing home where she spends her final years. There, her dutiful and clearly loving son visits to watch TV with Regina — particularly her favourite, Murder, She Wrote (no talking until the commercial breaks, mind you). 

It's in these scenes that Wright's solo show finds its gentle heart.

There are moments of humour here — Regina's blunt assessment of Meryl Streep, for example, is scathing, inappropriate and profoundly funny.

And there are moments of great sadness. A scene where Regina reflects on the indignities that come with a body failing due to age is honest, insightful and heartbreaking.

Wright delivers it all with a raconteur's skill for handling a good story. His timing, under Thomas Morgan Jones's direction, is finely honed. He gives the monologue breathing room where its more reflective moments need to set in, and lands punchlines with precision.

At the same time, Ghost Light sometimes feels meandering. It takes a while to find its heart — the first third or so of the 85-minute show feels like it snaps from one anecdote to another somewhat too randomly. They're entertaining stories, to be sure — but it feels like it's a while before Ghost Light begins to reveal its more tender side.

The writing is at times profound and beautiful but sometimes feels a bit too literary — at one point Wright says he was first told to turn his mother's stories into a book, and there are parts where the writing seems like it might read better than it flows onstage.

But when Ghost Light does connect emotionally, it does so powerfully. Its best scenes are graceful and genuinely moving.

It is, ultimately, a sweet and touching sendoff to a remarkable woman — and a worthy tribute to a formidable spirit.

Shawn Wright's Ghost Light runs at Prairie Theatre Exchange until Feb. 9.

About the Author

Joff Schmidt

CBC theatre reviewer

Joff Schmidt is a copy editor for CBC Manitoba. Since 2005, he's also been CBC Manitoba's theatre critic on radio and online. He majored in theatre at the U of M, and performed in many university and Fringe festival productions along the way (ranging from terrible to pretty good, according to the reviews). Find him on Twitter @JoffSchmidt.

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