Atlanta's Creative Loafing: Past Haunts Present In The Alliance Theatre's Long-Awaited Ghost Brothers
04.14.2012 - By Curt Holman -
Atlanta Creative Loafing
"The past is never dead. It's not even past," William Faulkner wrote in his
novel Requiem for a Nun. The quote sums up the themes of Ghost Brothers of
Darkland County so succinctly, I'm surprised it doesn't appear in the Alliance
Theatre's long-awaited musical by Stephen King and John Mellencamp. The
best-selling novelist and the rootsy rocker aren't shy about using the script to
name-check their influences, including Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, and one
character's cheeky declaration, "It's like Tennessee Williams in Hell!"
Acclaimed music producer T Bone Burnett serves as the third member of Ghost
Brothers' trinity of famous creators. Even if you didn't know that Burnett was
the show's musical director, you'd wonder who was responsible for the
production's instrumentation and other acoustic effects. Above all else, Ghost
Brothers sounds like a dream — and occasionally a nightmare. Mellencamp's
driving beats and catchy melodies, largely influenced by country, rock, and
blues, have an instrumental richness and auditory clarity like I've never heard
in a stage musical.
The all-hands-on-deck number "Tear This Cabin Down" brings the first half to
a powerful close with a hammering piece of blues that conveys a message of human
corruption and impending doom. At the climax, video projection overlays red
lava-like cracks across the performance space, suggesting that sins of the past
and failures in the present mean damnation for the characters. Directed by Susan
V. Booth, Ghost Brothers constructs sequences of enormous dramatic impact, but
as a whole, the new play doesn't hang together as smoothly.
King makes a complicated premise simple in the first scenes. Joe McCandless
(Shuler Hensley), a businessman in contemporary Mississippi, wants to unburden
himself of a secret involving the 1967 deaths of his brothers Jack and Andy
(Peter Albrink and Travis Smith) and the young woman they both loved, Jenna
(Kate Ferber). The present-day characters unwittingly share the stage with the
white-garbed ghosts of Jack, Andy, and Jenna, along with Dan Coker (Christopher
L. Morgan), a deceased caretaker whose relationship to the McCandless family
isn't entirely clear. Andy and Jack seem fated to act out their sibling rivalry
in limbo unless Joe reveals the truth about their deaths.
Joe gathers his family at the McCandless's lake house, where his sons —
rising novelist Frank (Lucas Kavner) and struggling musician Drake ("American
Idol's" Justin Guarini) — fight over everything, particularly the affections of
beautiful but mean-spirited Anna (Kylie Brown). Joe believes that if he doesn't
reveal the truth about his deceased brothers, Frank and Drake will meet the same
fate. (Like uncles, like nephews — is that a thing?)
Meanwhile, an additional unseen character known as The Shape (Jake La Botz)
continually undermines the good intentions of the living. A tattooed,
gap-toothed, swaggering rock 'n' roller who could be Satan himself, The Shape
preens through the opening numbers of both acts with deliciously hateful songs
about leading humanity astray. Readers of King will notice similarities between
The Shape and Randall Flagg, a demonic recurring figure with a vicious sense of
humor and fondness for "the devil's music."
King and Mellencamp may be masters of their respective fields, but Ghost
Brothers marks their first outings as dramatists. Mellencamp told the New York
Times that they intentionally avoided the convention of writing a musical with
songs that drive the story forward. In Ghost Brothers' first half, they succeed
a little too well. Much of Act One feels like treading water while Joe postpones
sharing his big story. We see Anna and Frank mock Drake for a disastrous gig,
but when the show flashes back, we see the performance but receive no new
information. Drake and Frank brawl through the furious "Brotherly Love," a
bluesy piece structurally reminiscent of Bob Dylan's "Maggie's Farm," but their
animosity had already been well-established. Emily Skinner sings nicely and
captures middle-aged melancholia as Joe's wife, but the role seems unnecessary
to the action.
In Act Two the 1967 characters re-enact their fateful night, building up such
a propulsive narrative that you wonder why the creators held themselves back.
Ferber, who sings the show's more wistful numbers with angelic tenderness, cuts
loose with the boot-scootin' roadhouse number "Jukin'." King builds to some
genuinely shocking final twists, including a horrifically effective bit of stage
gore I've never seen before. But the ending relies on some confusing cosmic
rules as well as one character's bizarre, unmotivated freak-out (The Shape's
malign influence notwithstanding). If King and Mellencamp continue to work on
Ghost Brothers beyond Atlanta, expect the ending to get the most tweaks.
A physically big, opera-trained baritone, Hensley strikes an imposing figure
on the stage, with a pale streak in his hair and eyes that seem to protrude and
gleam with the weight of Joe's guilt. The rest of the cast seems to orbit
Hensley's gravity. Morgan belts out his songs like a veteran Gospel singer and
brings a mischievous wit to his scenes. But his role as Dan fits a little too
neatly into the "Magical Negro" cliché of an African-American who only wants to
help a white protagonist.
The Alliance crafts an incredibly intricate production, with onstage
automobiles, trapdoors, lover's leaps, collapsing bunk beds, video projection,
and a virtuoso four-piece band (all veteran collaborators with Mellencamp). The
ensemble frequently loiters on stage, motionless but visible, like extras on a
movie set or the ghosts whose stories we'll never know.
Over the years the Alliance has debuted stage musicals of national interest,
from Aida to Bring It On, which left few memories outside of the big stunts or
giant props. Ghost Brothers of Darkland County instead proves to be a unique,
risky, and ambitious show uninterested in offering audiences splashy escapism.
It may still be in the process of self-discovery, but King and Mellencamp should
keep digging into the material. The ghost brothers aren't ready to be put to