Nancy (Lizzy Jarrett) finds the strength to leave husband Coleman (Oliver Palmer) with the help of Obediah Junior (John Cannon), a clean-living preacher’s son. Soon it’s apparent hers is not an ordinary love triangle or redemption story. Nancy is in love with the older Obediah (James Anthony McBride), preacher of a Pentecostal Church whose denomination handles snakes. Private and communal passions come together during the service that forms Romulus Linney’s Holy Ghosts. Theatre East’s outstanding revival of this provocative drama is entering in its final week of an too-short run at Urban Stages.
When Holy Ghosts premiered in 1976, Pentecostals and other charismatics represented a minority of practicing Christians. Snake handling services is still a fringe element, but the rest has changed. In 2011, the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life found Pentecostals and charismatics comprise more than a quarter of all Christians. They also have government representation; Senator Ted Cruz is the son of an evangelical preacher. .
This makes Linney (1930-2011) look like a prophet. But Holy Ghosts is not an expose or parody. Twenty something Virgil Tides (Alston Slatton) defines these Pentecostals’ belief by reading aloud Mark 16:18: “They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.”
Director Judson Jones and his actors take great care ensuring that the play never gets out of control. Obediah Senior’s followers are friendly, finding solace away from larger congregations. Jones adds an nice touch having worshipers occasionally look into the audience as if to bring them into their circle. They initially welcome the mocking Coleman, but as confessionals and testimonials intensify, so do their less-than-peaceful souls.
Because Linney’s writing is so powerful, the service and play’s climax is controlled. The snakes (it would be a terrible spoiler alert revealing how it’s done) are a shocking, extreme test of faith. It also unites these people. Who is qualified to judge or be judged?
Lizzy Jarrett and Oliver Palmer are believably heartbreaking as two people who should have never married. Among the churchgoers, there were Lori Fischer’s complicated, compassionate Bonnie Bridge, Shaun Bennet Fauntleroy as shy new member Lorena Cosburg discovering she has a voice, and Jerry Colpitts, the optimist/realist known as Cancer Man. This production’s heart is worn by Debra Wassum’s Mrs. Wall, the church organist. The former Sunday School teacher’s halting narration of being replaced by a “slick-talking college girl” isn’t about touching a snake, it’s about finding meaning in life.
Holy Ghosts Opened on September 21, 2018 and runs through October 6, 2018 at Urban Stages, 259 West 30th Street, NYC). Tickets and additional information is available on Theatre East’s website.