"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 rest.