By Manning Harris
Horizon Theatre is presenting Daryl Lisa Fazio’s new play “Freed Spirits,” running through October.
Horizon Artistic Director Lisa Adler (who directs here) commissioned Ms. Fazio, who’s also done graphic design work for Horizon, to write the play some time ago; so it’s a world premiere—just in time for Halloween.
That’s fun to know because “Freed Spirits” is a mystery/comedy set in a beloved Atlanta treasure: Oakland Cemetery, founded as Atlanta Cemetery in 1850. Oakland remains one the oldest historical plots of land in the city because most of the rest of Atlanta was burned in 1864 by General Sherman—a name that still evokes hisses from old-time Atlantans.
I’d like to give credit up front to the brilliant scenic designers Moriah and Isabel Curley-Clay, two sisters who are already legends in the Atlanta theatre community. They have outdone themselves here; not only in their basic Oakland Cemetery set, but in the changed set after a tornado—which happens before your very eyes (inspired by the 2008 tornado). One could easily say that the set is the star of the show; and that’s a compliment intended to demean no one.
That doesn’t mean we don’t have fascinating characters played by excellent actors. Susan Dickey (Suehyla El-Attar) is a very enthusiastic docent, a volunteer tour guide who is blessed/cursed with a photographic memory. She dresses in Victorian mourning garb to honor the interred; and she’s not unaware of the, shall we say, spectral effect she adds to her work.
She is soon joined by a young documentary filmmaker named Keisha (Jimmica Collins), whose passion for her work matches Susan’s. Then Dr. Netta Finch (Marguerite Hannah), a retired pathologist and expert gardener appears; her skills prove handy, especially after the tornado roars through.
M.J. Bell (Bryn Striepe), a steampunk survivalist/Goth girl par excellence, finds her way into the cemetery for murky reasons. She’s a natural detective and quite attractive and soon has the attention of our resident romantic photographer Byron (what else would he be named?), played by Jonathan Horne.
The tornado shifts the action into high gear; it also raises the dead: a Confederate soldier (Spencer Kolbe Miller) once again romances a slave girl (played by Ms. Collins) whom he’d loved during the Civil War; will anything come of it? They’re ghosts, after all; you’ll have to see.
Truth to tell, I think the main characters are attracted to the cemetery because they have an unalloyed fascination with what Hamlet called “the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns,” meaning death, of course. But in a place like Oakland where Margaret Mitchell is buried not far from nameless soldiers and prominent citizens alike, in a cemetary in the heart of bustling city, a unique ambience is present that must be experienced to be felt and understood.
Playwright Fazio knows all this and could not resist writing a play set there. Once the characters are introduced, however, one yearns for a plot with more direction and finality. We’re sort of left hanging, with a dozen climaxes and denouments that could have been, but aren’t. A little tweaking could work wonders.
Nevertheless, we have some quite delicious characters, superbly acted, and ambience for days. Ms. El-Attar and Ms. Hannah are seasoned pros, funny and charming, and they do not disappoint. Ms. Striepe and Ms. Collins are fine; one wants to see more of them. Mr. Miller is an Horizon Theatre apprentice who’s attractive and shows much promise. The accomplished Mr. Horne, magnetic and smooth as glass, could have played this part in his sleep. He’s always worth watching.
So is “Freed Spirits.” It’s a spirited, lighthearted romp through Atlanta’s legendary Oakland Cemetery near Halloween; now who could resist that?
For tickets and information, visit horizontheatre.com.