A snake cult in the South is a subject that most playwrights wouldn't pick up on a bet. There's the problem of whether to show the snakes. There's the problem of getting an audience to identify with the bizarre people who worship them.
Romulus Linney was raised in the South and doesn't see his characters in "Holy Ghosts" as necessarily bizarre. Troubled, yes. But no more so than many more conventional worshipers--and non-worshipers. And more fulfilled in their relationship with the universe than most.
Get past the strangeness of their worship--at the Colony/Studio Theatre Playhouse--and one sees the blowtorch power of a living faith: not a mild guidebook to what's right and what's wrong, but a cathartic, exhilarating and potentially fatal encounter with the Creator.
If the men and women in the Rev. Obediah Buckhorn's congregation are breaking the law--and they know they are--they aren't deadheads. Their all-night bootleg gospel service takes the viewer back to the mysteries of early Christianity, also an outlaw cult.
It's also a truth session, with each character purging himself, a bit too schematically, of the poison that's brought him here. That includes Richard Lineback as a scoffer and wife-beater who suddenly finds himself brought to his knees, like St. Paul struck by lightning on the road to Damascus. It's not the only miracle of the evening.
"Holy Ghosts" was done to great effect in New York last summer by the San Diego Repertory Theatre. Michael David Wadler's staging for the Colony/Studio Theatre is somewhat milder. Individual characterizations are polished, and there is a good ensemble feeling.
But things are also a bit too careful. Never do we get the sense that the meeting is wheeling out of control--that perhaps, after all, this might be the devil's work.
For example, when we learn that the Rev. Buckhorn has buried several wives, we ought to wonder, with his beautiful young fiancee (Lisa Beezley), if his strength doesn't harbor a latent brutality. But Stuart Lancaster's Buckhorn seems as stable as a man who rejoices in handling rattlers can be.
Rather than miming the rattlers, as the San Diego cast did, the actors use prop snakes--close enough to the real thing so that you could swear they move as they come out of those baskets.
The music-making is live and true, and Jamie McAllister's lighting takes us from midnight to dawn in Jim Yarmer's stockade set. This "Holy Ghosts" is a bit slick, a bit urban, but it makes Linney's point: Religion isn't about covering up and saying no. It's about coming clean and saying yes.
'HOLY GHOSTS' Romulus Linney's play, presented by the Colony, at the Studio Theatre Playhouse. Director Michael David Wadler. Assistant director Sandy Schuckett. Set design Jim Yarmer. Lighting Jamie McAllister. Sound John Fisher. Costumes Richard Pedersen and Jenny Rivas. Technical director Robert Budaska. Property master Hugh Maguire. Production assistant Bobbi Cutler. Musical director Gary Cearlock. Dialect coach Karen Porter White. Religious adviser Linda Stone. With Lisa Beezley, Richard Lineback, Dan Barrows, Chip Heller, Nick DeGruccio, Russell Panter, Linda Stone, Carlease Burke, Cara Rowe, Gary Cearlock, Stuart Lancaster, Don Woodruff, Karen Porter White, Bradley Della Valle. Plays tonight through Feb. 20, in repertory with "Side by Side by Sondheim." (Call theater for performance dates.) Performance times: Wednesdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 and 7 p.m. Tickets $10-$15. 1944 Riverside Drive. (213) 665-3011.