by DICK KEREKES
FCCJ’s Wilson Center on South Campus was the scene for the opening weekend of Romulus Linney’s Holy Ghosts in its Jacksonville premiere. Three more performances remain on April 24 & 25 at 8Pm and Sunday April 26 at 2 PM.
The play is set in a snake handling church in the South featuring a magnificent set by Johnny Pettegrew Scenic Designer and his students in the Drama Practicum and Technical Labs. The massive set fills the Studio Theatre from wall to wall, and is of the quality to expect to see on main stage productions.
The plot revolves around Coleman Shedman , a wife abusing, beer guzzling, fish farmer, who comes to the church with his lawyer Mr. Canfield (Robert Thames) to get his furnishings and run away wife Nancy (Mary Crumpton) back. Coleman is played by David Benfield in a chilling/realistic performance. The young Nancy has decided to marry the twice-her-age preacher Obediah Buckhorn Sr. (played with convincing authority by Alex David Palmer). Later in the play she begins to reconsider this marriage when she learned old preacher has had six wives of which five are dead and one ran away.
By now you may have surmised that this is a pretty bizarre church by any standards and has some interesting, if quirky characters. One is in constant mourning for and talking to his death hunting dog, another is dying of cancer. One lady is trying to overcome over active hormones and her desire to sleep with every and any male, another left her previous church after being rejected despite 20 years of teaching Sunday school. The preacher’s son, Oby (Casey Deming) is one of seventeen children fathered by the Pastor and is manager of a local bowling alley. There, he gets his religious fever by watching strikes.
One of the most interesting relationships, and perhaps the most controversial is that of the pairing of Ryan Arroyo (as Howard Rudd) and Matt Mercurio (as Orin Hart), as homosexual lovers, who certainly don’t hide their affections as they perform a passionate kiss when they enter a church. I am of the opinion playwright Linney has taken some artistic liberties here, since Pentecostal Churches use the King James Version of the Bible in which homosexual behavior is definitely an unpardonable sin.
Coleman, a real redneck, is visibly upset by these men and his confrontation with Mercurio is one of the strongest scenes in the show.
The church is founded on the Gospel According to Mark (chapter 16, verses 17 and l8 to be exact), where Jesus reportedly said his followers will take up serpents, cast out devils, speak in new tongues and drink of any deadly thing. (Like poison).
The last fifteen minutes of the play is the very dynamic and captivating snake handing scene.
Director Ken McCulough has done a marvelous job of choreographing the snake handling. No, real snakes are not used but Sound Designer Andrew McCharen’s snake rattle noise was convincing and had me looking under my seat. Perhaps they need a note in the program, that no animals are used in the performance and this would go along with the warning posted everywhere: This production contains strong adult language.
I will not reveal the somewhat surprise ending since I want you to go see this very rewarding theatre experience and to see your educational dollars at work in the marvelous acting by the mostly student cast. The Appalachian attire by the Costume Crew was right on the mark. The Musical Direction by Mary Cumpton featured some old time religion songs sung by the church members.
I consider this a well structured play, which was certainly entertaining and as well very educational. In case you wondered, snake handling is now illegal, but still done; in fact there are about 4,000 Americans who still practice in 40 or so churches in the South. Copperhead rattlers are the main snake of choice since their venom is less poisonous but if you really want to pray dangerously use a water moccasin, which will send you to heaven real quick after a bite.
Call 646-2222 for reservations. Tickets are a bargain at $l0.00 for adults. $8.00 for senior, military and students. The play was inspirational to me, I think I will go out and rent Snakes on a Plane.
CAST: Mary Cumpton(Nancy), David Benfield (Coleman), Robert Thames (Mr. Canfield), Casey Deming (Oby), Chelsae Newberry (Jenny), Christina Christensen (Lorena), Chelsea Donovan (Mrs. Wall), Alex David Palmer (Obediah), Dana Marie Ferger (Muriel) Johnathan Ross (Billy), Kasi Walters (Bonnie), Matt Mercurio (Orin), Ryan Arroyo (Carl), Bryan Way (Carl), Justin Freeman (Cancer Man).
PRODUCTIN TEAM: Ken McCulough (Director) John McCloskey (stage manager), Asia Gagnon (assistant stage manager) Robert Rupp (technical direction),
by DICK KEREKES