By Manning Harris
There’s been a lot of brouhaha surrounding the world premiere of “Ghost Brothers of Darkland County,” the Southern-gothic musical at the Alliance Theatre running through May 13; more about that later.
Henrik Ibsen, the great Norwegian playwright often called the father of modern drama, would have loved it (the play, not the brouhaha). Ibsen wrote “Ghosts,” a darkly realistic play about how “the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children.” His ghosts were toxic, musty old ideas that could drag people down and ruin their lives.
This is a prominent theme in “Ghost Brothers,” though I suppose “sins of the brothers” would more aptly apply here.
I imagine you’ve heard about the big names involved in the creation and execution (no pun intended) of the play: Stephen King, book; John Mellencamp, music and lyrics; T Bone Burnett, musical direction. These people are international stars in their fields; how did they happen to descend upon Atlanta to observe the gestation of their creation?
In two words, Susan Booth, the Alliance’s Artistic Director and director of “Ghost Brothers.” I know this because I attended a high-profile press conference in late December in which all three men were effusive in their praise of Ms. Booth, the Alliance, and Atlanta, in that order. I see Ms. Booth as a sort of David O. Selznick figure here, guiding a “Gone With the Wind” size (almost) project, soothing large egos, mixing and matching a montage 12 years in the making, always propelling the thing forward. Please understand—this is just a personal, intuitive reaction. I attended the press conference, not the rehearsals.
12 years ago Mr. Mellencamp pitched a story he’d heard about to Mr. King: Two brothers and a girl friend had died under mysterious circumstances in a small town. It seems Mr. King wrote a treatment which set the scene in a small Mississippi town in 1967. Thus “Ghost Brothers” was born. The town was called Lake Belle Reve—a conscious homage to Tennessee Williams; Blanche DuBois’ old home place in “Streetcar” was Belle Reve (“beautiful dream”). The two quarreling brothers were Andy (Travis Smith) and Jack (Peter Albrink); Jenna (Kate Ferber) was the young woman they loved.
They’re all dead now. They’re doppelgangers, you might say, and they won’t go away. However, they had a 10-year-old brother named Joe, who witnessed the horror. Now it’s 40 years later, and Joe McCandless (Shuler Hensley) is the grown patriarch of the family and has two grown quarreling sons, Frank (Lucas Kavner) and Drake (Justin Guarini), and they have a mutual girl friend named Anna (Kylie Brown), who has not graduated from a charm school. Big Joe has never told anybody what happened 40 years ago, but now he’s worried (with good reason) that history might repeat itself. He summons all to the lake house and prepares to reveal all to everyone, including his wife Monique (Emily Skinner).
But he hesitates. Not a good idea, for him or the audience, because the pace starts to slow down. But it picks up, especially when a mysterious figure called The Shape (Jake La Botz) starts to taunt folks (and they can’t hear or see him). Why, he’s the devil! Mayhem ensues—blood and gore—parents,
use your discretion; small children could be upset.
As a mesmerizing spectacle, “Ghost Brothers” dazzles. Todd Rosenthal’s set is a Mississippi Gothic masterpiece. Ditto Adam Larsen’s projection design and Robert Wierzel’s lighting. This is a huge, complex production.
The music! A rockin’ bluesy good score, expertly performed. Kudos to Mr. Mellencamp and Mr. Burnett. True, the songs don’t really drive the story forward; they comment on the action. Mr. Mellencamp said that was his aim. He succeeded. I particularly like “Tear This Cabin Down” and “The Truth Is Here.” But it’s a multi-faceted score.
Director Booth called this show “a blues concert/ghost story mash-up,” and it could not be said better. It’s not really clear, compelling, character-driven theatre yet, but what brand new show doesn’t need a few tweaks?
“Ghost Brothers of Darkland County” is expertly sung and acted, and even though I would have liked the Tony-winning Mr. Hensley to have a number where he could even more fully show his vocal prowess, he’s still fine, and I think this show must be seen by anyone who cares about theatre in Atlanta.
Is it Broadway bound? All the creators say they don’t care, but I don’t believe them. Who knows? The main thing is it’s here now: carpe diem.
For tickets and information, visit www.alliancetheatre.org.