The first impression of the Lyceum Space, the smaller of the two-theater Lyceum Theatre complex, is that it's too big. The second impression is that it's housing the San Diego Repertory Theatre's first hit production in its new home.

The way the flexible "black box" is arranged for Romulus Linney's "Holy Ghosts," with dirt-filled walkways and a rough wooden platform erected in the center of the square Space, it's about as intimate as a boxing pavilion.

And what street mongrels are these who would fill their new theater with truckloads of dirt--now tracked all over the brand new, expensively subsidized carpet?

Well, it doesn't take more than 20 minutes of watching director Doug Jacobs' cast dig into this story about Pentecostal snake handlers to forget these niggling complaints.

The 15 actors deliver 15 terrific performances. Better yet, they work together, steadily building events and emotions to the fanatic pitch of religious obsession that encompasses Linney's vision, but does not blind him--or us--from the larger picture.

It's early summer in the kind of dusty, rural Southern wasteland that breeds this bizarre offshoot of fundamentalist Christianity. Coleman Shedman has quite literally stalked his runaway wife, Nancy, to the sparsly furnished shack (the platform designed by D. Martyn Bookwalter) where the snake handlers hold their unconventional services.

Nancy thinks she has found relief from her unhappy life. Exactly what the missing factor was is subject to interpretation. The promise of salvation? Religious ecstasy? A new life married to the charismatic leader of the sect? Or does she still have more to discover?

Curiosity draws us in. What is it that moves these people who shake and tremor, kiss and hug, kneel and cry, and speak in tongues? What makes them give their consciousness entirely over to a force that does not appear to be the benevolent one they imagine, risking their lives in a fiercely literal Bible interpretation ("They shall take up serpents") to prove the greatness of this supposed power?

Coleman is determined, at first, merely to retrieve his pickup truck and family heirlooms.

As strange people arrive for the impending worship session, with the ominous crates carrying diamondbacks, cottonmouths and moccasins soon clustered center stage, around a small wooden cross and a jar of strychnine, Coleman starts to get nervous.

He's rude, obscene, angry, taunting, curious and deeply hurt, all in one package. And the actor who plays him, Chiron Alston, is absolutely riveting. A faint echo of Sam Shepard merges with flickers of Marlon Brando and James Dean as he struts across the stage--but this is not a shadow performance. Alston is genuine. He is thrilling to watch.

And he is not alone.

Diana Castle is refreshingly simple, direct and liberated as Nancy.

Ollie Nash has found his niche as Obediah Buckhorn Sr., the preacher-leader of the sect whose excitable nature hints at a questionable history. Dana Hart gives a shiveringly sweet, sticky performance as his hopelessly devoted son, portraying the body of a man whose soul is pitifully trapped in illusionary ecstasy.

Don R. McManus works his way into the heart with a brilliant performance as an unbalanced young man mourning the brutal death of his bird dog. Tavis Ross seems about to crumble into ashes as the dying worshiper they call Cancer Man, and Barbara Murray is all eyes and pale fear as a snake-handling newcomer.

The others unfold with equal intensity: W. Dennis Hunt as a shifting-sands lawyer; Michael Lewis as the boy who first collapses into trembling contortions; Bill Dunnam and Ric Barr as angry, macho gay lovers; Priscilla Allen as a paragon of devotion; Cynthia Ann Williams and Jim Mooney as biracial parents of an unwanted child, and Terry Eaton as a sweet-looking song leader with a startling past.

Linda Vickerman and Victor P. Zupanc served as musical directors for the well-worn hymns, with Zupanc credibly managing the center-stage snake rattles and off-stage roar of trucks and rednecks. But there are a few extraneous hums caked on to some of the tenser moments--a magnifying trick that works in films, perhaps, but not here.

Ray C. Naylor's costumes adequately reflect these people's sparse lives.

Bookwalter's dusty set features a small forest of bare trees suspended over the center platform--a bit excessive. Better are the vines and roots emerging from underneath, and the moss creeping up over the sides (through the invisible "walls"), onto the faded easy chairs and the upright piano, giving the place a feeling of decay--a lost corner of the world where ignorance reigns.

Jacobs' success with in-the-round-staging is mixed, but his guidance of these wonderful actors is superb.

"Holy Ghosts" is full of surprises. Linney leads us deeply into this strange religious desperation. But before he leaves us he supplies an exit, and much to think about.

Note for the weak-hearted: No live snakes are used--or necessary--in this production.

"HOLY GHOSTS" By Romulus Linney. Produced by San Diego Repertory Theatre. Directed by Douglas Jacobs. Scenic and lighting design by D. Martyn Bookwalter. Musical directors Linda Vickerman and Victor P. Zupanc. Costumes by Ray C. Naylor. Sound design by Zupanc. Stage manager, Will Roberson. With Diana Castle, Chiron Alston, W. Dennis Hunt, Dana Hart, Michael Lewis, Bill Dunnam, Ric Barr, Barbara Murray, Priscilla Allen, Cynthia Ann Williams, Jim Mooney, Ollie Nash, Don R. McManus, Terry Eaton and Tavis Ross. Tuesday through Sunday, with matinees, through July 19 at the Lyceum Space, Horton Plaza, San Diego.

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