News From The Dead Zone: Ghost Brothers Of Darkland County Review
05.02.2012 - By Bev Vincent -
As I wrote last week, it took twelve years for Ghost Brothers of Darkland
County to get from inception to execution. I attended the red carpet premiere on
April 11. Here are my thoughts.
Before the show started, ghostly figures flitted across the stage, projected
onto the walls. It was an eerie effect because I didn't expect anything to be
happening yet. I was talking to others in our group when I noticed motion out of
the corner of my eye. Then we realized there were stationary figures at the
edges of the stage. Was the old man sitting on a bus stop bench real or a
mannequin? More of these figures materialized, part of the ensemble that would
join the actors on stage from time to time.
Two thirds of the stage is taken up by the interior of a lakeside cabin.
There's a living room—which has a couch, a grandfather clock, a huge fireplace
and a gun rack—and a small bedroom with a Shania Twain poster on the wall and
Beyond the cabin's Spanish moss-covered roof is an old water tower. To the
left is an open area used for exterior action and flashbacks. An old Pontiac
convertible is pushed onto the stage here from time to time. In one wing is a
lover's leap. An elevated roadhouse set is located left of the cabin's chimney.
From this significant vantage point, a bartender and central character Joe
McCandless contemplate the past. The four-piece band, composed of musicians who
regularly play with Mellencamp, occupies a screened-in loft above the stage.
As the show starts, a figure emerges through a trap in the floor. Tattoos
cover his arms and chest, and he looks like a satanic rockabilly singer. This is
"The Shape," a kissing cousin of Randall Flagg perhaps, played with sassy glee
by blues singer/songwriter Jake La Botz. He sashays and saunters around the
stage like he owns it. His opening piece, "That's Me," sets the tone. In it, he
claims responsibility for every evil thought and malicious deed.
The Shape reappears frequently during the play, goading characters into
making bad choices. He quickly becomes an audience favorite. For two generations
he has been wreaking havoc on the McCandless family in the Mississippi town of
Lake Belle Reve. Joe was ten when his older brothers died in 1967. Andy got easy
As in school, whereas Jack struggled to make Bs. Their fierce rivalry worsened
when a girl entered the picture. They argued and fought whenever Jenna wasn't
around, forgetting that young Joe was watching everything.
Jack unexpectedly wins the Hawkeye Shootin' Competition. They drink too much
that night and the love triangle comes to a head. What happens next becomes as
romanticized in Lake Belle Reve as the stories of Cain and Abel or Romeo and
Juliet. Only Joe knows the truth. His sons, Frank and Drake, appear to be
heading down the same destructive path as his brothers. He needs to set the
record straight so they can learn from the past.
Frank just sold his first novel for half a million dollars. He's bound for
New York with Anna—Drake's ex-girlfriend, who bears a strong resemblance to
Jenna. (The past harmonizes, right?) Drake blew his big chance when he screwed
up during one of his band's gigs with a talent scout in the audience. He'll
probably be stuck working at the local garage for the rest of his life.
Drake broke Frank's arm during their most recent set-to, but Frank goaded
him, so the two are equally culpable. Joe summons his sons and his wife,
Monique, to the family cabin, the site of the long-ago tragedy. Anna comes with
Frank, putting everyone on edge. Unlike Jenna, who was a pleasant, high-spirited
girl who genuinely liked Jack and Andy, Anna isn't nice at all. She's probably
with Frank only to torment Drake—she knows Frank is unlikely to take her to New
York now that he's found success. She spends a lot of the play slumped on the
couch, seemingly uncertain why she's there. Monique isn't given much to do,
either. She doesn't know Joe's secret but she encourages him and tries to keep
her sons from bickering, but—even though she gets a couple of show-stopping
songs—she is somewhat superfluous to the action.
The ghosts of Andy; Jack; Jenna; and Dan Coker (Christopher L. Morgan), the
black cabin caretaker who unfairly received some of the blame for what happened
in 1967, are interested in Joe's story, too. They're trapped in the cabin until
the truth can set them free. Ten-year-old Joe (Royce McCann) chimes in
occasionally, urging his older self to come clean.
The cast includes a Tony Award winner (Shuler Hensley as Joe), a Tony nominee
(Emily Skinner as Monique) and a runner-up from the first season of American
Idol (Justin Guarini as Drake), along with professional musicians La Botz and
Kate Ferber (Jenna).
The songs range from R&B to C&W to rock and roll, mixed with ballads and
Patsy Cline-esque torch songs. The vocal performances are all strong, though
Ferber stands out in "Home Again," "And Your Days Are Gone," and "Away from this
World," and struts her stuff in a short dress and stockings in "Jukin'." When
the ghosts sing as a chorus, their harmonies are magical, and the full power of
the ensemble is amazing. A program insert containing the final song listing
indicates that King, Mellencamp and director Susan V. Booth tweaked the show
right up to the last moment. A reprise was added to the second act, and the
final song was renamed "The Truth is Here" from "The End is Here."
The show's staging, lighting and visual effects are all remarkable. When a
character looks at a photograph, it is projected for the audience to see. As
time ricochets back and forth, the years scroll backward and forward on the
cabin's roof. Other text cues occasionally appear on the walls. Panels in the
floor allow characters and props to emerge on demand. The actors do double duty
as props crew. Though those who use the lover's leap are obviously jumping
safely onto an air bag, the fact that they perform this ten-foot leap at all is
impressive—and they have to do it several times. During the energetic dance
routine—reminiscent of "Thriller"—that ends Act 1 ("Tear This Cabin Down"), the
lights make the entire stage look like it's on fire.
Like many Southern Gothic tales, Ghost Brothers hinges on a secret. When the
truth is revealed, it may not seem like such a big deal, but it changes how the
McCandless family is seen—and how it sees itself. The romantic legend loses its
sheen. It is also a secret borne by a 10-year-old boy. As such, it shaped the
fifty-year-old man he became. The first act dragged a little, with Joe dithering
over how to tell his story—and how much of it to tell. The second act is much
peppier; as the ghosts of the past and the present intermingle, tensions rise
and the conflicts come to a head.
Signs outside the theatre warn of Stephen King levels of violence, profanity
and adult situations. Certainly this isn't family entertainment. There are
numerous sexual references and sensual behavior (though no nudity), and jarring
special effects associated with gunshots. Some of the violence is stylized,
including the use of a transparent curtain that portrays flowing blood.
Viewers familiar with King's other works will find themselves in familiar
territory once the truth is revealed. King explored the need to make changes to
get things right in the Dark Tower series and in an episode of Kingdom Hospital.
The question is: who has to change and when do they have to do it? For a while,
it looks like the show might end like a Shakespearean tragedy, but there is
There is no word yet whether Ghost Brothers of Darkland County will have a
life beyond its run in Atlanta. King and Mellencamp fans who find themselves in
Atlanta between now and May 13 shouldn't pass up the chance to see this show if