If we’re alone in this world with no Higher Power to guide us, we are probably doomed. If on the other we find ourselves favoring the faith of the characters in Romulus Linney’s Holy Ghosts, we might want to pray for a third option.
Theater East is currently reviving —no pun intended—Linney’s 1976 play that invites us into a dilapidated house of worship (appropriately designed by Steven Brenman) for Southern Pentecostals. The sprawling work employs a cast of 15, each of whom is bringing their A-game to Jesus.
Nancy Shedman (Lizzy Jarrett) has had enough from her abusive, alcoholic husband, Coleman (Oliver Palmer). She seeks refuge in the arms of her pastor, Obediah Buckhorn, Sr. (James Anthony McBride). During a lively church service, Coleman returns to retrieve her, along with his lawyer, Rogers Canfield (Tom Green).
Holy Ghosts is not the most action-filled piece, but it’s not intended to be. Instead, it is a slice of life drama that fulfills the mission of this 10-year-old theater company: to provide the community with a platform to deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world we share through works of theatre that utilize simple storytelling.
Watching this story unfold is simultaneously fascinating and ominous. At times, the amounts of grace, care, and compassion shared by this congregation are deeply touching. Yet beneath it lies a troubling, blinded cult-like mentality -one that amplifies the dangers of herd thinking and brings somber clarity to our current divided nation. Extremism in thought and action—in any matter-eventually reaps corrosive consequence to ourselves and the communities we cherish.
The late playwright–who would have turned 88 last month– managed to infuse his band of believers with earnestness and heart. He could have chosen to mock and ridicule them, especially since organized religion was—and is– so often an easy punchline. Instead, he took the spiritual high road by lifting them on clouds of dignity. These are flawed folks. Radical, but genuine. Director Judson Jones, himself a product of a Southern gospel upbringing, knows this community well. As a result, he ’s painted a respectable portrait for city slickers who are otherwise unfamiliar with this world.
Holy Ghosts won’t send you running to the nearest church, but it might send you on a vulnerable journey through your own soul.
Theater East presents Holy Ghosts now through October 6th @ Urban Stages (259 West 30th between 6th and 7th). For tickets and information, visit http://theatreeast.org/production/holy-ghosts/