Romulus Linney’s brilliant comedic drama of Southern Pentecostal snake handlers is well beyond the grasp of director Bruce Fleming and his ensemble cast at the William Alderson Studio Theatre. Despite fine performances by Brandi Hensley and Chip Bent, the production never finds the richness and complexity of tone required for Linney’s script.
The play’s fireworks begin early as Coleman Shedman (Nicolas Kane Landry) arrives at the one-room church of a rural Pentecostal religious sect to reclaim his wife Nancy (Hensley), who has left him with plans to marry the leader of the sect, Rev. Obediah Buckhorn Sr. (Jack Kissell). Just in case, Shedman has brought along his lawyer, Rogers Canfield (William Alderson), to arrange for an equitable divorce settlement.
The irate Shedman discovers not only that his wife is under the spell of the charismatic preacher, but that she is sur-rounded by a colorful congregation of characters straight out of a Southern Gothic.
Cast includes a barely reformed, middle-aged Sunday School slut (Janet Chamberlain), a couple of rednecks with homo-sexual urges (Andrew Bowles, Jon Ingrassia), a wayward housewife (Jules Sorensen), a man with terminal cancer (Chuck Flynn), an elderly piano player (Lily Means-Gale), a husband and wife (Michael Tolfo, Katharyn Grant) dealing unsuccessfully with the birth of a new baby, the dimwitted son of the preacher (Ray Daly) and a young man (Bent) who was catapulted into mental illness by the death of his pet dog.
Each of these offbeat characters has come under the sway of the fire-and-brimstone faith preached by Buckhorn, which includes the ultimate test of faith — handling deadly serpents while singing hymns, testifying in tongues and writhing about on the floor.
The brilliance of Linney’s script lies not only in the vivid-ness of the characters he creates, but also in the constant shifting of dramatic and comic tones, as well as his deft thematic probes into the universal appeal of faith.
The problem with Linney’s material, as with much sophisticated, groundbreaking work, is that it is often difficult to pro-duce, requiring a very skilled directorial touch and gifted actors of consistently strong abilities. In this produc-tion, neither are present.
Director Fleming is unable to track the shifts in tone or to guide the performances into a cohesive whole. And the performers, while generally talented, have neither the experience nor the direction to portray these characters with the fullness that the playwright intended. The result is an often awkward lurching about, search-ing for the proper tone at each moment.
There are, however, a couple of fine performances. Hensley is winning as the desperate wife searching for some equilibrium on the shifting sands of her life. And Bent is marvelous as the deranged, pathetic boy/man who has lost his beloved pet. The production values are almost too simple for the piece, and the small playing area severely cramps both the performances and the story itself. Unfortunately, this production offers only a glimpse of what Lin-ney’s sublime play has to offer.