An arresting blend of evocative humor and eerie gravitas permeates "Broomstick" at the Fountain Theatre.
New Orleans playwright John Biguenet's ripely poetic tale of an Appalachian crone who may or may not be a witch receives a striking West Coast premiere starring the redoubtable Jenny O'Hara.
There's little doubt that this free-verse piece will be steeped in atmosphere upon seeing designer Andrew Hammer's marvelously realized cabin set, which J.R.R. Tolkien might recognize. And when O'Hara appears, fright-wigged to the max, berobed by costumer Shon LeBlanc to suggest Roseanne Barr as an attraction at Disneyland's Haunted Mansion, it's clear that we're in for a creepy-tickling treat.
Her character, called simply "Witch" in the script, greets us as though we were a long ago runaway child who reacted to its host chasing a suckling pig that we thought was a human offering.
"When'd I see you last?" she asks in a voice that carries infinite undercurrents beneath its twangy accent and proceeds to run the gamut from ribald observations to genuinely chilling accounts of not just other runaway children but her own macabre indigenous history.
Throughout, we cannot be entirely sure whether this harridan is putting us on or pulling us in, which is exactly as it should be. And when Witch gets to the tale of her long-since lost love, or the night she witnessed her father and others taking vengeance on black men accused of pie theft, the merger of pathos, insight and horror is hair-raising.
Director Stephen Sachs exerts taut control over tempo and effects, including Jennifer Edwards' mordant light plot and composer Peter Bayne's sinister soundscape.
And O'Hara, always one of our best character actresses, here goes for the jugular, devouring the dialect, subtly shifting timbre and tone, giving Biguenet's text an undulating rhythm that ebbs and flows like a rain-swelled river.
Only appropriate, since between Sach's sense of how to balance somber and sassy and O'Hara's fantastic investment -- she's clearly having a ball, and we cannot help but do so too -- there's always another hairpin turn to Biguenet's narrative.
Tightly woven, richly detailed and fully enjoyable, this "Broomstick" sweeps away any resistance we might have to its ostensible slightness, leaving us with giggles, shivers and even a lump in our throat. Now, about that suckling pig ....