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“Ghostlight” reviewed

The therapeutic value of theater is no secret. Everything from role play to full-out drama can be part of the health practitioners’ toolbox. But even a young person who finds themselves sobbing onstage in a role in the high school play knows there’s something regenerative about stepping into someone else’s shoes for a while.

That’s the gist of “Ghostlight,” named for the single bulb often left burning in a theater when all the rest of the lights are shut off, keeping it from total darkness. If that sounds like a metaphor, it is. There are metaphors aplenty in “Ghostlight,” written by Kelly O’Sullivan (“Saint Frances”) and directed by O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson. The pair are partners, with a young child, which is worth noting mostly because “Ghostlight” centers on a family rocked by tragedy and brought together by theater. (O’Sullivan is an alumna of the school at Chicago’s eminent Steppenwolf Theater Company — this is familiar territory for her.)

The story centers on Dan (Keith Kupferer), a stoic construction worker who is trying to hold his family, and himself, together after the tragic death of a teenage son, the details of which the movie at first keeps us from knowing, for reasons that eventually become clear. His wife, Sharon (Tara Mallen), is a teacher, and their teenage daughter Daisy (Katherine Mallen Kupferer) is a theater kid with a belligerent streak. It’s obvious the family isn’t OK. It’s volatile, stressful work to stay afloat.

After Daisy gets herself suspended from school, Dan is about at his limit, and after an outburst at work he gets put on leave, too. He doesn’t want to tell his family. A serendipitous encounter with an onlooker named Rita (Dolly De Leon) leads him into an unexpected place: a rehearsal for a local production of “Romeo and Juliet,” which has just lost a player. Rita badgers him into reading lines for a day. He keeps coming back.

It’s a gentle story, full of tender moments, and knowing that the parents and daughter in the main cast are a family in real life increases the warmth. There’s a complexity to their conversations, the way their interactions are never one-note (as parents and teens often are in films), that you can sense has its roots in real life. By the end of the film, their emotional bond carries the story. Have a few tissues on hand.

In some places, “Ghostlight” can feel a little contrived. Early in the film, having met the theater troupe but perplexed by Shakespeare’s language, Dan enters Daisy’s room and asks, “Do you know this play ‘Romeo and Juliet’?” He says it as if he’s not sure his daughter — who has taken AP English and lives for the theater, tacking Playbills to the wall — will know what he’s talking about, since he barely does. It’s a moment that feels false; I wasn’t sure if Dan wasn’t supposed to know of “Romeo and Juliet” because he wasn’t paying attention to anything in the last 50 years of his life, or because he’s a construction worker. Later, Daisy — who can quote it verbatim, and loves the Baz Luhrmann movie, even if “it’s old” — has to explain to him what happens at the end of the play. “Here’s a hint — it’s a tragedy,” she says.

Knowing the plot of “Romeo and Juliet” is in fact important to following the full emotional arc of “Ghostlight,” so I understand the impulse. But it feels clunky, as does Dan’s first encounter with the theater troupe and decision to come back. Not impossible. Just distracting.

Yet by the end, “Ghostlight” won me over, partially because the theme of theater as therapy takes on a deeper, richer meaning as the plot unfolds. Part of the power of Shakespeare’s plays comes from their infinite capacity for reinvention — their ability to be restaged in every culture and find new resonance there. “Ghostlight” plays on this while weaving a tale of its own, making the case that theater’s allure comes not from its plot, but the way we’re invited to participate in it, whether actor or audience. Performing a play, we step into someone else’s shoes, and if we’re any good at it we start to understand who they are a little more. If we’re watching it right, we inhabit their world too.