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The new film Ghostlight, starring Chicago actor Keith Kupferer, portrays theater as a tool to heal. The movie premieres Friday at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago before its national release next week.

Courtesy of Luke Dyra/IFC Films

The new film Ghostlight features a real-life Chicago family of actors, but the city’s theater scene is the star

The movie from directors Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson premieres in Chicago on Friday before opening to audiences nationwide.

In Chicago, the theater world is a tight-knit community. It feels like everyone knows each other.

So, when Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson, the co-directors of the new movie Ghostlight, were thinking of whom to cast in their new project, they started close to home – with longtime Chicago theater actor Keith Kupferer.

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The poster for Ghostlight.

Courtesy of IFC Films.

O’Sullivan, who also wrote the movie, is a former theater actor in Chicago herself. She starred with Kupferer in 2014 in The Humans, a critically acclaimed play by American Theater Company that won a Tony for its New York run after leaving Chicago. “He played my dad,” said O’Sullivan. Knowing that her script called for a blue-collar, paternal type in the central role, “I was, like, ‘Keith is believable as that.’ ”

Ghostlight, which was picked up for theatrical distribution by IFC Films, will have its Chicago premiere on Friday at the Music Box Theater in Lake View before opening nationally next week. Nearly the entire cast of Ghostlight is comprised of Chicago theater actors, but the film is more than just an ode to stagecraft. A family dramedy that centers around a traumatic event, the movie — which tackles complex discussions of mental health — portrays theater as a tool that is healing, cathartic and a way to build community. Theater art is positioned as therapy, and a community theater becomes the home for healing.

In real life, Kupferer is not sure if theater has this power. But he does admit that people who have seen the film have approached him with stories of family trauma similar to what his character suffers on screen. He also says performers can work through “real life baggage” if it’s related to the story they are telling – which is exactly what his character does in the film.

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Kelly O’Sullivan (left) and Alex Thompson (center) co-directed the new movie Ghostlight.

Courtesy of Drew Tieng/IFC Films

Growing up as a theater kid in Arkansas, before becoming a pro on stages in Chicago, O’Sullivan sees theater as a space ripe for therapeutic experiences. “It’s a place where you can go and you can let out all the weirdest parts of yourself,” she said. “And it’s celebrated there. For me, it’s always been a place of freedom.”

The film is a family affair for O’Sullivan and her stars. The co-directors are life-partners and new parents: O’Sullivan gave birth to the couple’s first child, Milo, just after filming.

And the family at the center of the drama is an actual Chicago family as well. Kupferer’s daughter, Katherine Mallen Kupferer, has acted both on screen and on Chicago stages, and his wife, Tara Mallen, is founder and artistic director of Rivendell Theatre. “It was such a blast,” said Mallen. “[The movie] is such a love letter to the theater community in Chicago.”

O’Sullivan’s story follows Dan, played by Kupferer, and his grieving family as they try to move forward in the aftermath of a tragic event. Audiences meet the fictional family in a place of isolation. Even though they live in the same house and eat dinner at the same table, the emotional miscommunication is palpable. While Daisy, the daughter, seeks solace in therapy, her father eventually finds an outlet in an unlikely place for a middle-aged blue-collar construction worker: a community theater.

O’Sullivan, a millennial, created Dan’s character with fathers like hers in mind – a generation known for pushback against traditional forms of therapy. “I think there are a lot of men from that generation, who I know and have witnessed, who were told therapy is for weak people and to express sadness is weak,” she said.

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Keith Kupferer’s daughter, Katherine Mallen Kupferer, plays his on-screen daughter Daisy in Ghostlight.

Courtesy of IFC Films

In the film, Dan struggles with anger and outbursts at work until, when at his lowest place, he is pulled into a theater and thrust into a role in Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet.

This is where the film really finds its groove. The real-life theater folk who fill the cast create a fostering community that welcomes Dan, and eventually his wife and daughter, into their world. And remarkably the film finds a way to make Shakespeare, one of theater’s most inaccessible writers, relatable in a new way.

Mallen believes the theater has a profound impact on audiences. “I think the stories do have the power to heal, and give people a place to put their big emotions, their grief, and their wounds,” she said. “That’s why we culturally tell stories. And that’s why we have theater.”

If you go: Ghostlight opens at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave., on June 14. It will be in theaters nationwide the following week.


Mike Davis is WBEZ’s theater reporter.

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