God meant it when he gave us the power of free will, and that's characteristically big of the ol' guy—but a handful of Appalachian and Southern Pentecostal churches would rather take him at his Word. They cite the Gospel according to Mark (“… [T]hey shall take up serpents, and if they drink any bad thing, it will not hurt them”) as they vigorously rub elbows with poisonous snakes during worship, tempting eternity amid bone-jarring music and frenetic dance. YouTube has lots of entries on them, featuring talks with bite survivors and stuff about government's failure to put the kibosh on the practice (like it's any of government's goddamn business).
Science says the animals strike us only as a last resort—they try to save their venom for smaller prey and thus assure themselves of a square meal. You won't hear that side of the story if you see Holy Ghosts, the current entry from The Sullivan Players. In fact, Romulus Linney's play glosses over lots of material like that, sacrificing sectarian lore for a mundane story about a marriage gone bad. Even so, Linney leaves just enough meat behind to pique our interest in most of the characters and in their climactic parade, snakes in tow. This isn't a play so much as a sketch, but director D.J. Sullivan has imbued it with a fair amount of spirit and a whole lot of honesty.
We get the sense that Coleman and Nancy Shedman (Michael Barnett and Melanie Sutherlin) stopped being friends the minute they exchanged vows. Coleman is a loutish, foul-mouthed cracker, having beaten Nancy at least twice and routinely drinking himself into oblivion. The colorless Nancy's flown into the arms of sect leader Obediah Buckhorn Sr. (Joe Nesnow), convinced that religion is the key to ending her earthly trials. Soon, she becomes a central figure in a change of heart, one in which the congregation loses one member and gains another.
Linney's devices are clever enough—he reveals the crusty Buckhorn's seamy past right on time, and, for the most part, he's got Coleman pegged as an up-front sort with no tolerance for hypocrisy, religious or otherwise. The renowned Sullivan, who in her 40 years' experience has coached the best of the best, gets a lot from Barnett; he shows some nice chops amid his vocalisms and hair-trigger movement (although I would have welcomed a dirtier, more realistic mouth on Coleman). As well, Nesnow has a very good scene where he recoils at his own anger after planting a well-placed “fuck” between Coleman's beady eyes.
Hard to fathom, though, what all this has to do with snake-handling Pentecostalism. The play's final twist certainly doesn't feed off that particular phenomenon; it doesn't even really need a religious context in order to unfold. And Linney's language isn't always that interesting, as it describes the course of events rather than colors it (“You're all a bunch of those Pentecostal snake-handlers!” Coleman anticlimactically shrieks at the end of Act I).
But Sullivan has crafted some good backdrops, replete with fundamentalism-fueled testimony to the healing power of Jee-zus. There's also a decent performance by Kevin Six as Cancer Man, who clearly benefits from his visits with this unorthodox crowd—and who's to say he's got it wrong? This production, warts and all, does shed some light on a fascinating practice. But for Sullivan's enormous staying power as a theater educator, we might have passed it by. This review is based on the opening-night production of May 3. Holy Ghosts runs through May 25 at Swedenborg Hall, 1531 Tyler Ave., University Heights. $12-$15. 858-274-1731.