“Public Ghosts — Private Stories” is a collage of interlocking tales spanning two centuries that chronicle fragments from the lives of the people in the New Jersey city of New Brunswick. Ain Gordon’s play was commissioned by George Street Playhouse and developed from videotaped interviews of community residents through a yearlong workshop collaboration with the Cornerstone Theater Co. in Los Angeles. The play is reasonably rich in dramatic personae but fails to reach a satisfying emotional pitch.
The basic tone of the anthology is one of subtle disillusionment. An expressionistic piece, played out on a Thornton Wilder landscape with minimal scenery and props, it tells of unfulfilled lives and failed dreams.
The locale is not necessarily a governing factor. The rambling reveries come from troubled townsfolk who could just as well be residents of Grover’s Corner or Spoon River.
Robert (Shawn Elliott) is an American-born Hispanic cop awaiting a long overdue promotion. He appears to be suffering a minor domestic crisis with his Mexican-born, hen-pecking wife. During his tour of duty, he delivers a baby to a young Latino girl (Maria Tola), re-evaluates his life as a husband and community servant and comes to terms with his marital conflict.
An Irish immigrant housemaid, Bridget (effectively acted by Mara Stephens) is sexually harassed by her bullying employer. She ultimately becomes a convicted murderess sentenced to execution by hanging. The segment, based on the 19th century murder trial of Bridget Deergan, is the most interesting of the show and sturdy enough to warrant a full-length dramatization of its own.
Another persuasive vignette chronicles the life of a former slave, John Bartley (Victor Love), and his romantic pursuit of Zena (Cherene Snow), an insecure young slave girl. Bartley became a respected citizen of the community. The futile courtship boasts a bittersweet core, and though the half-century postscript is somewhat telegraphed, it is the warming centerpiece of the play. The sequence is beautifully acted by Love and Snow.
Mrs. Kovash (Helen Gallagher) is a Hungarian emigrant who offers a traditional family recipe for Hungarian noodles and lamb, and spars with her daughter, Rose (Anne O’Sullivan), over her choice of an American beau. The scene is dominated by homespun warmth, spiced with middle European sass. It’s the weakest chapter in the play but is somewhat redeemed by vet Gallagher, who gets a big guffaw by prefacing a back-from-the-grave scene with the announcement, “I’m dead!”
The fine ensemble cast distills the character studies with clarity, with some of the actors doubling in incidental roles. The tandem staging by Michael Rohd and Eric Ruffin is clean and uncluttered. They have nicely captured the poetic rhythms of the text.
R. Michael Miller’s sterile functional set offers a sandy semicircle landscape of cement blocks, suggesting milestones in the history of a city, or perhaps, gravestones.