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Shattered Globe Theatre
Is there an easier way to raise giggles here in the sophisticated urban north than to portray the denizens of the rural south as drawling, slow-witted escapees from Al Capp’s L’il Abner? I don’t think so. Which is why whenever a play comes along that treats this frequently caricatured stratum of American society with even a modicum of evenhandedness, I can’t help but admire the playwright, especially when the subject is a group as frequently ridiculed as the Pentecostal snake handlers.
In less scrupulous hands the backwoods misfits and lost souls of Romulus Linney’s Holy Ghosts–among them a man who is literally haunted by the ghost of his dead hunting dog–would make for an evening of Second City-style mockery. (Even the more mainstream Pentecostal churches consider the snake handlers, loosely confederated as the Church of God With Signs Following, both dangerous and laughably eccentric.)
Linney, however, is far too humane and clear-eyed to take potshots at such easy targets. He reveals the human beings beneath the stereotypes and the sincere (if extremist) spirituality behind the holy rolling and handling of vipers.
At the center of Holy Ghosts is the story of a marriage gone wrong. Nancy Shedman, fleeing her husband’s drunken abuse, seeks sanctuary in the arms of Reverend Buckhorn and his Amalgamation Holiness Church of God With Signs Following. Her husband, Coleman, confronts her at the church, divorce lawyer in tow, but before the two can decide on the terms of their divorce Reverend Buckhorn’s religious service begins. The rest of the play is framed by this service; even the climax of Nancy and Coleman’s confrontation coincides with the climax of the meeting: the speaking in tongues and handling of the snakes.
Watching this play unfold, one can’t help but appreciate the masterly way Linney balances the fictional and nonfictional elements of his story. As you might expect from a playwright who’s equally at home with historical dramas (The Sorrows of Frederick, about Frederick the Great, and Childe Byron, about Lord Byron) and works that draw on his experiences in rural Tennessee and South Carolina (Jesus Tales), Linney never lets his facts interfere with his need to tell a compelling story, or vice versa.
The same could be said of Shattered Globe’s fine production of Holy Ghosts, in which everything that could be done to make this production authentic and believable has been done. Thanks to Joe Forbrich’s excellent set design–which extends the already deep and narrow stage into the audience–you really feel like you’re sitting in some ramshackle country church (just as in Shattered Globe’s production of Talk Radio last year you really felt like you were looking into a radio studio). And the actors even handle live, though nonpoisonous, snakes.
Under Louis Contey’s direction, this huge 14-member cast makes a convincing congregation. There isn’t an errant accent among the bunch, and no one stoops to Hee Haw stereotypes.
It hardly seems fair in an ensemble as full of solid performances as this one to single out actors, but it would be unfair to pass over the performance of Bob Fisher, who possesses a deep, booming voice and striking stage presence, as the charismatic Reverend Buckhorn. Fisher, best know for his work with Cardiff Giant, brings to this production the sort of mad intensity that typifies the best of that company’s shows–and his manic energy never lets us feel totally comfortable with the Reverend Buckhorn. Is he a crackpot? A charlatan? Snake-oil salesman? Sincere preacher? We never really know for certain. But I’m not sure Linney wants us to know. For at the center of this play beats an ambivalent heart: one that simultaneously appreciates the intense spirituality of these fringe Pentecostals yet remains skeptical of the suicidal extremes they go to to show their faith. It is this ambivalence that gives Linney’s play its power and depth and guarantees that it doesn’t stray into cheap comedy.