Here’s what theater really ought to do: transport you to another world.
Doesn’t need to be with exotic sets and costumes, although an occasional Cats or Lion King isn’t a bad thing. It might be nothing but a single actor on a naked stage, carrying you on a journey. The journey might be to somewhere you’ve never visited, or to somewhere you’ve seen a thousand times, but never quite this way. And what if – what if – it reveals that the exotic and the commonplace are eternal bedmates, sleeping side by side?
Romulus Linney created just such an exotic familiarity in 1970 with his Appalachian religious drama Holy Ghosts, a tale that shoves straight through the long and storied history of revivalism in American religion toward one of its most extreme conclusions: holy-roller snake-handling. Garry Wills writes about revivalist fundamentalism as a phenomenon in his fascinating 2007 book Head and Heart: American Christianities. Linney’s sweet believers live it as a personal reality. As the good and lusty Reverend Buckhorn puts it, “Well, what is real religion? One thing I know, it don’t have no beginning and it don’t have no end. It is happening all the time, and tonight I hope it will happen to us.”
Instead of treating his story as a freak show, Linney cuts to the causes and benefits – poverty and loneliness on one hand; acceptance, love and group identity on the other – and every now and again, once he’s lulled you, he shakes you awake again to remind you this is a cult, and a pretty weird one, at that. The church’s cultishness makes its people, who are the play’s heart and soul, no less likable – maybe even more so, because it reveals the emotional logic and essential quest for goodness beneath their radical beliefs. And it brings home the isolationist mentality of extremist groups: all will be wonderful, if only you do exactly as we do. In a world cleft by combative politics and fundamentalist fervor, Linney’s hardscrabble Appalachia doesn’t seem so far away at all.
Holy Ghosts is smart and lively and theatrically engaging, a rollicking American spiritualist tale in the loosely scattered tradition of Elmer Gantry, Friendly Persuasion and Wise Blood. And in its latest Portland production it’s getting a performance that coaxes out an overflowing baptismal font of oddball yet astute charms.
You could divide the audiences for Portland Actors Conservatory’s new production into two parts: those who hum along to the old-time hymns and gospel tunes being played on the piano by the proper Mrs. Wall (Cate Garrison) and those who don’t know The Old Rugged Cross from the Black Eyed Peas’ Boom Boom Pow.
I have it from the horse’s mouth that before rehearsals began, some of the actors themselves hadn’t made the gospel hymnal’s acquaintance. Yet by opening weekend they were in full foot-stomping spirit, for which ample credit must go to director Beth Harper, musical director Andrew Bray and, presumably, God Almighty.
I don’t mean that mockingly. I’ve known the people in this play, or people very like them, and I grew up singing their songs, whose words and harmonies sweep back on me like inescapable yet strangely welcome ghosts. We are who we were, no matter how much more we become. And these are vivid, vivid people in vivid, if peculiar, circumstances.
Music is at the soul of the revivalist spirit that haunts Holy Ghosts, and poisonous snakes, the successful handling of which signifies faith and glory to the true believers of the theatrical congregation, are in its grip. Linney’s play is Southern Gothic, and from a rationalist perspective its characters are as nutty as a Truman Capote fruitcake – who are these people, and why are they doing this insane stuff? – but they also follow a rigorous logic of the heart. The craziest thing about the play is how it gets inside fanaticism and allows you to understand and even sympathize with it, or at least with the people who turn to it for solace.
Holy Ghosts isn’t only historical or Southern-regionalist. These snake-handlers aren’t so different from the Oregon faith-healing advocates who regularly land in court for entrusting their children’s health to God instead of medicine, even when their children end up dying from preventable causes. And how many steps removed are they from the fanatical fundamentalists raining violence on the world, or for that matter, from the saints whose images line cathedral walls? Sometimes fanaticism is only a half-step to the side of heroism and the commonplace. Sometimes it’s benign. Sometimes it’s dangerous.
Blue state urban bubble-dwellers really ought to see this play, and not to poke fun at the red-state rubes, although the drama has some very funny scenes, but to get inside some pretty interesting skin and begin to understand the culture wars from a different perspective. Among these fervidly holy men and women “value politics” isn’t a matter of partisan tactics but of everyday life. And don’t think you’ll always know what the values are: In the Actors Conservatory’s production, black and white people are equals in the eyes of the Lord, and so are gays and heterosexuals. Not exactly earth-shattering propositions, unless you look around the country these days.
There’s nothing belittling or cartoonish in the colorful congregation that flocks to Linney’s little pentecostal church. Linney himself explains them well in a 1987 interview from the New York Times:
”The play is funny,” he says, ”but it’s not a satire. It takes these rural people very seriously. It deals with people who, I think, are very desperate. Their religion is not a small thing to them, their humanity is not a small thing to them. The two things are very much mixed together. It’s not a matter of an actor getting on stage and making fun of a country bumpkin; it’s a matter of trying to understand very deep feelings of people who are themselves at the bottom of American life. You can’t get much further down, as far as rural American is concerned, than a lot of these folks. And yet they feel, through the extreme cathartic experience that they go through in these services, they feel recognized by some great power.”
Linney has a way of bringing you up short. It’s one thing when you discover a young runaway wife is planning to marry the gray-haired preacher father, not his handsome son: May and December have met many times before. It’s another thing to learn that preacher father has already buried six hard-working wives and scattered something in the neighborhood of 17 kids across the countryside. He is, as they say, charismatic. He also seems scarily biblical and patriarchal, an Old Testament lord and master of his clan. Yet in the clinches, as it were, he can be as gentle as a lamb of God.
Among director Harper’s grandly cast collection of oddballs and fanatics, three are crucial to the driving of the plot: Katie Butler as Nancy Shedman, the innocent and fiery young wife who has fled her young husband into the arms of the patriarch; Jeffrey Arrington as her hot-headed and sometimes two-fisted husband, Coleman; and veteran Michael Fisher-Welsh as Rev. Obediah Buckhorn Sr., the patriarch. Arrington’s Coleman, who has pursued Nancy to the church with his divorce lawyer (a wonderfully fleshy and seedy Jim Davis) in tow, is a pistol itching to go off, and when he and Fisher-Welsh go at it it’s almost like God and Satan getting testy with each other in The Book of Job. Somebody’s going to win this argument, and it might be surprising to find out how it all works out.
The three performances seem ideally calibrated: the true believer, the unbeliever, the wavering aspirant. Butler and Arrington, both conservatory students (as are most of the cast), hold their own remarkably well in a company anchored by veterans Fisher-Welsh, Davis, Garrison and Tim Stapleton as Cancer Man (yes, there’s a character named Cancer Man, and he’s quite amazing). But then, pretty much everyone fills the exotic bill well. Holy Ghosts is one of those well-crafted plays where the first act ends exactly where the first act ought to end and everyone in the cast gets a knock-’em-dead moment in the spotlight (that’s why actors love to be in them). And Harper (who grew up in Tennessee and knows this territory) is a director known for her skill at creating a genuine, almost musical, ensemble on stage. In a Harper show the good stuff happens in the space between the performers, where the energy meets.
Stuff happens. Revelations are made. Anguish and humor rear their ugly-pretty heads. Lives even change. More than that I see no need to tell, except maybe for this: The snakes do come out to play. And you don’t want to be sticking your hand too close. You could be transported.
One more thing does need to be told, and that is that you really ought to take time to absorb Faith and Work, the show of paintings hanging on the lobby walls. They’re by the multitalented Stapleton, who is terrific as Cancer Man and is also the conservatory’s resident scenic designer. He grew up in Kentucky coal-mining country, and the portraits in this exhibition are of family members: his uncles, father, grandmother, others.
Crosses of Calvary show up. A canary in the mineshaft. The hand of God. A rail of a woman with the face of an old soul. Coal-stained faces of miners, hard-working men, variously proud and stoic and trouble-brewing and jovial and dignified and wearily ready to rest and start it all again. Stapleton homes in on eyes, which leap with independence and personality. These are the faces of tradition and hard-laboring poverty, and they provide the base, if you need one, for understanding the soil from which Holy Ghosts has sprung. We may (or may not) be the world’s richest nation. But as George Orwell has pointed out, some pigs are more equal than others. And some are left to shift on their own – with a little help from their Friend. In a way, these paintings are holy ghosts, too.