‘Ghost’ layers vivid illusion onto reality

Sometimes it is the simpler, more familiar stories that hit us the hardest and lead us to reflect upon our own lives. In his play shown last week on the ’62 Center’s CenterStage, Ghost in the Machine, playwright Mike Leon ’11 crafted a touching, genuinely beautiful drama that follows a young man as he struggles with grief and addiction. What begins as a sweet, yet strangely fragmentary account of a couple’s intimate moments slowly reveals itself to be a drug-fueled hallucination, punctuated only by silence, anguish and the occasional intervention of a well-meaning sibling.

We are first welcomed as spectators to a tender scene. James Lapikas and Rachel York, played by Peter Drivas ’11 and Aspen Jordan ’11, are quite clearly very much in love and allow us to observe what seems to be a camping trip that James has organized for Rachel’s birthday. They laugh, play and tease in an almost frighteningly authentic and private display of affection. Drivas and Jordan forged a superbly convincing and endearing on-stage couple that had all the quirks and unique habits one would expect, yet allowed us to relate to them immediately and powerfully. From the campsite we move to a sunlit diner and then to the main part of the set, James’ apartment, at random moments in their timeline as they enjoy similarly intimate instances together. The two actors portrayed the witty banter and blissful joy of this romance with a rare ease and an often highly comedic delivery.

Suddenly, the room echoes with a repetitive, booming sound. James rushes to answer the door as Rachel flees out of sight. The audience, perplexed, can only continue to follow without explanation as the action continues to unfold. James’ brother Eddie (Ryan Pavano ’13) is on the doorstep, awkwardly shattering the idyll by entering onto the stage. Whereas his presence seems incongruous as first, as time passes it becomes increasingly obvious how strange Eddie seems in comparison to James’ relative normality. While they discuss an unspecified but undoubtedly tragic past event and meander through pointless chit-chat, James’ façade starts to fissure, revealing a frustrated, slightly deranged state of mind. As the dialogue progresses, we collect some of the pieces of his story that have been ominously absent: He’s seeing a psychiatrist, is taking Ambien and has stopped taking care of himself.

As the play continues, we slowly make our way deeper into James’ fragmented psyche. Once evidence starts to pile up, the situation becomes much clearer: Rachel, or at least the one we see on stage, is a hallucination. Constructed from James’ memories, photographs and voicemails, she is an illusory figure kept alive only by his constant drugged-up stupor and stubborn refusal to confront the outside world. One of the more striking successes of this play comes to light here: The apparent lack of border between the different parts of the stage, supposed to relate to different places and different memories, echo the addict’s inability to distinguish between dream and reality. Clearly, we are compelled to sympathize. When the drugs wear off and the delightful illusions fade, the stage is left in silence, highlighting his crushing, inescapable solitude.

It is in these moments of anguish that Drivas excelled, bringing to life James’ unstable, cyclothymic mood swings. He seamlessly shifted from perfect, crystalline lucidity to erratic, troubling delusion. Nonetheless, he managed to include us in his world – because the action takes place through his eyes only, we understand his torment. Jordan formidably depicts the foil to his madness as the sweet, comforting Rachel who, despite being an imaginary construct, brings joy to James’ life in a very real way.

As the play reaches its conclusion, Eddie enters his brother’s apartment one last time in a climactic, clearly therapeutic meeting. All along, the audience had waited with bated breath for the answer, an explanation of what happened, while knowing full well what to expect but nonetheless hoping for a happier truth. “She’s dead, Jimmy!” bellows Eddie in a final, irreversible declamation of fact that crushes all hope but manages to bring James back into reality. In this key point of the plot, Pavano produced a powerful, necessary performance; casting down his image of a well-meaning but simple fool who cannot possibly understand, he revealed himself as a grounded, insightful force bringing light and life to where there were none. After this final exchange with his brother, James faces his only exit: He purposefully overdoses, says his goodbyes to the ghost of his lost love and expires in peace.

Ghost in the Machine does not simply challenge us by asking the question, “What would you do if I vanished?” Rather, it blurs the seemingly solid line that separates reality from dreams. For James, the Rachel of his hallucinations is strikingly real, almost as alive as she used to be. Who are we to decide that he is wrong, that his experience is not a genuine, fulfilling one?