By Romulus Linney
Produced by Spooky Action Theater and Arts Alive Theatre at Montgomery College
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Cast of Holy Ghosts (Photo: Micah Hutz)
Holy Ghosts, a play set amidst a congregation of Pentecostal snake-handlers, could have dripped with condescension, irony and crass humor – a sort of "Ernie Goes to Church." Instead, playwright Romulus Linney chose to write a moving and funny account of unsophisticated people in moral and emotional crisis, and Spooky Action Theater’s somewhat uneven but honest and authentic production does it justice.
Pentecostal snake-handlers receive their text from the Gospel of St. Mark 16: 17-18. "And these signs shall follow them that believe…they shall take up serpents and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them…." In an ecstasy of faith and an orgy of fearlessness, they pick up poisonous snakes – generally rattlers and Copperheads – and hold them in their arms, periodically draping them around their shoulders and even dancing with them. The terrified snakes, not having received the memo, will occasionally bite, depending on the weather. (Snakes, being cold-blooded, are sluggish on cooler days). The snakebite victims recover, or die, and there is a theological explanation either way.
"[S]weet religion makes/ A rhapsody of words" when a man marries a woman, Hamlet tells his mother. He is being ironic, but for the Pentecostal snake-handlers he is saying a literal truth: as the snake-handling climaxes they cry out in incomprehensible bursts of sound, which they believe is the original language of man, spoken through their mouths and voiceboxes by Almighty God Himself.
In Holy Ghosts, Nancy Shedman (Jennifer Crooks), in an effort to escape the drunken attentions of her husband Coleman (Brandon Mitchell), has moved in with a band of Pentecostal snake-handlers and fallen in love with their leader, Rev. Obediah Buckhorn (Steve Beall). Like any true modern Americano, Coleman picks up a lawyer (John Feist) before showing up at the Church and demanding a divorce. Nancy is prepared to give it to him, but like all couples who have fallen in hate, they must first heap scorn and blame on each other. The lawyer, whose best days before the bar are clearly behind him, periodically interrupts to bring order and civility to these discussions, with varying degrees of success.
Eventually the congregation shows up. In a successful effort not to condescend, Linney romanticizes the snake-handlers as a loving support group for the rejected, the damaged, and the sick at heart. Coleman is all three, and he is compelled to listen to each of their stories: Carl (Anthony van Eyck), who sees his dead bird-dog with him all the time; Bonnie (Hilary Kacser), whose over-friendly way with men in other congregations eventually drove her away from other churches and to the snake-handlers; the hypermasculine homosexual roughnecks Orrin Hart and Howard Rudd (Jason B. McIntosh and Jim Breen, respectively); the clueless young couple with an infant child, Muriel and Billy Boggs (Tori Miller and Steve McWilliams); Mrs. Wall (Jean Hudson Miller), the embittered Sunday school teacher who was turned out of her old church; an old man dying of cancer (Don Kenefick), and the rest. Each one of these people is a member of the spiritually walking wounded, and each one of them has found some measure of peace among the snake-handlers. Each one tells his story to Coleman, and with each story Coleman – a classic hard-drinking daddy-haunted figure straight from Faulkner – fulminates more profusely against the congregation, against Nancy, and against fate for putting him in such a position. Eventually the snakes come out; Coleman has an epiphany; another of the characters has a revelation; and the play comes to an end.
Linney has loaded this play down with many powerful moments and some very funny ones as well, and the quality of the writing makes up for the episodic nature of the play and a false note at the end. Spooky Action doesn’t fully render all the play’s grace notes but gets most of them. Director Richard Henrich clearly understands what he has on his hands. The principals – Crooks and Mitchell as the warring couple, and old pros Beall and Kacser as the congregation’s minister and its den mother – are just fine. The relationship between Crooks and Mitchell is authentic from the moment Mitchell walks in the door. We get that Coleman is a blowhard, but a dangerous man nonetheless; and that he loves Nancy – as long as she does what the hell he tells her to do. Henrich keeps the play moving. The actors come in over each other beautifully when appropriate. The snake-handling scene is perfectly choreographed (Following Linney’s advice, this production uses imaginary snakes, whose presence is suggested by the hands and bodies of the worshippers.)
Henrich also makes a couple of decisions which, in my view, diminish the play’s emotional impact. Most consequentially, he has van Eyck emphasize the damage done to Carl’s mind, to the detriment of the story. Carl has a beautiful, profoundly moving monologue in which he describes how he handled his dog’s death but van Eyck’s rendition of it, in halting voice and with vacant eyes, robbed it of most of its emotional power. At other points van Eyck stared offstage during other people’s monologues, prompting the audience to look offstage too. I recognize that van Eyck’s portrayal is a very real representation of how some mentally ill people present themselves, but sometimes, in theater, the real is the enemy of the true. Carl would be portrayed more effectively as a simple man, made whole in his grief.
In other productions of the play I have seen, the gay roughnecks Hart and Rudd greet each other with a non-sexual, but distinctly connubial, kiss and thereafter hold hands as they talk about affairs of the day. This alerts the audience that stereotypes will go out the window in this play, and initiates a string of homophobic observations from Coleman. In this production, McIntosh and Breen embrace and slap each other’s backs, in the style of old friends who have not seen each other. Hart gives Rudd a little peck on the cheek, but this is not sufficient to explain Coleman’s subsequent outrage. Aside from that, McIntosh and Breen were absolutely convincing, and the scene in which McIntosh as Hart confronts Coleman was perhaps the most moving in the production.
A few of the other cast members have not yet found their character’s center, and there are parts of the production which drag as a result. Miller does an exceptionally nice turn as the bewildered teenage mother, and I liked Rachel M. Clark as a much-ignored townswoman who decided to make a radical break with her past.
Spooky Action’s production of Holy Ghosts (yes, I’m aware of the pun potential, but I have too much class to take advantage of it), is an honest, credible rendition of a difficult but rewarding piece.
Holy Ghosts runs at the Black Box Theater of Montgomery College Thursdays through Sundays until April 1. Sunday shows are 2 p.m. matinees; all other shows are at 8 p.m. There is no charge to see a show, but patrons are asked to make a donation at the show’s conclusion, keeping in mind that Spooky Action is a professional theater with a need to pay its expenses. For reservations, call 202.248.0847, or reserve online at www.spookyaction.org.