Center Stage with Pat Launer on KSDS JAZZ88
“Holy Ghosts” – The Sullivan Players at Swedenborgian Hall
AIRDATE: MAY 23, 2008
You’ve heard of “Snakes on a Plane.” How about snakes in a play? The centerpiece of “Holy Ghosts” is a makeshift Pentecostal congregation of snake-handlers in the rural South. Playwright Romulus Linney , who happens to be the father of screen actor Laura Linney , hails from Tennessee . He knows all about Holy Roller churches and evangelical cults.
The parishioners he created for his 1971 folk drama have their comical moments, and some are a bit overblown; but they’re not send-ups or caricatures. Linney respects these losers and loners, stuck at the bottom of the American food-chain: uneducated, unemployed, humiliated, desperate, searching for recognition and salvation. Their religious community offers the only hope and acceptance in their lives. When they have the cathartic experience their church service provides, they’re touched by power. In this case, the power is the voice of the Lord, telling them that if they believe, anything is possible; the natural order of the universe can be reversed. A deadly snake will not, can not bite them. Of course, many of the handlers have died from snakebite. But the believers assert they just hadn’t been imbued with the power.
Needless to say, the small local production by the Sullivan Players does not employ real snakes. The genuine articles down South are copperheads and diamondback rattlers as thick as an arm. These are rubber numbers, though the playwright actually prefers reptile pantomime. In all other aspects, though, what he’s after is a slice of genuine Southern life, a compelling vision of bedrock Christian faith that encourages us to understand and empathize rather than judge or deride. These are, for the most part, plausible folk. A penniless young couple with a new baby the reluctant husband doesn’t really want. A nameless, pallid presence called “Cancer Man,” who’s trying to delay the inevitable. And an obsessive canine-lover in eternal mourning for the bird-dog who gave his life meaning.
They’re stirred up to testify, wail and convulse during the services presided over by the fire-and-brimstone preacher who seems to make a habit of marrying new members. The latest prospect is Nancy Shedman , who’s run from her often drunk and abusive husband Coleman, an angry brute who chases her down, lawyer in tow, screaming abandonment and demanding divorce. But the couple and their attorney are unexpectedly changed by the Pentecostal proceedings. It’s all about finding your own path, family, community and home.
Veteran acting coach and director DJ Sullivan puts her Players through their paces. Many crisp characterizations emerge from the 15-member cast, and the tension explodes when the serpents finally make their appearance. Gospel singing and live, pre-show ‘mountain music’ enhance the experience. After seeing “Holy Ghosts,” you, too, may become a believer – in the power of theater, if not the sovereignty of snakes.
“Holy Ghosts” runs through May 25 at Swedenborgian Hall in University Heights .
©2008 PAT LAUNER