Ghosts in the Cottonwoods

Adam Rapp’s spooky drama at 24th Street Theater is reviewed by Jay Alan Quantrill.

The folks at 24th Street Theater, seasoned theater professionals formerly associated with Pacific Resident Theatre, have been working at their pliable new venue for a few years now. The evidence indicates that they are developing a somewhat more adventurous spirit than their colleagues out in Venice. Their offerings are never less than enterprising, and often courageous. Their current effort is both.

Ghosts in the Cottonwoods is a spooky drama previously staged in Chicago by the Rivendell Ensemble at Victory Gardens. Written by Adam Rapp, a writer-in-residence at Juilliard, the play was workshopped at both the New York Shakespeare Festival and the National Playwright’s Conference. Rapp has had some measure of success with other stage scripts and has published three novels after having majored in fiction writing.

Unfortunately, the author seems more concerned with verbiage on the page than with creating lucid, compelling drama on the stage. The colorful similes and extensive metaphors that trip off the tongues of his Ghosts in the Cottonwoods characters are appropriate to novels, but here they interrupt the emotional through-lines of what action there is and what relationships there need to be. Dialogue dotted with such quaint Rappisms as “life room” (for the main room of the house–i.e., the kitchen), “magazine book” (for Disco music fanzines), and “radio machine” (for a boom box) cleverly captures the untutored jingo of the play’s undefined back hills locale. But the outbursts of poetica too often seem to exist for their own sake, for their color, and for their potential value as fractured symbols, adding little to character comprehension or dramatic movement.

The play is begun by Bean Scully, a surprisingly youngish mama. (The role is usually played by Maude Mitchell but, at the performance I attended, was essayed by Beth Bates). Bean is first encountered while sucking the poison from welts on the body of Pointer Scully (Jeremy Maxwell), her strapping 20-year-old son, who stands buck naked except for his socks, genitalia in hand. The play ends with the spookily lit (re)appearance of Jeffcat (Mark Lynn), the crazed older brother who may or may not by that time be a ghost. Between these two points are 98 minutes of generally eerie and consistently enigmatic, though often lyrical, mountain meanderings. The nudity may seem gratuitous, but it does set the tone of sensuality for what follows. Whether Bean is arguing with Pointer (her curly-blond-haired youngest) or caressing Jeffcat (her bald-headed, ex-con eldest), this Phaedra seems ever on the verge of incest.

The action of the play stumbles along. There is a mystery at hand, concerning another character: “Who is Newt Yardley, and why is he here?” The answer is rather intriguingly revealed, and is the only dramatically satisfying “event” of the evening. But before we get to the resolution, there’s a long stretch with Newt spread out on the floor–the proverbial 400-pound gorilla in the middle of the “life room.” Though one would think he couldn’t possibly be ignored, he is–first by Pointer’s pregnant fiancée, Shirley Judyhouse (Linda Cardellini), then by Jeffcat. It’s a major stretch of credulity; but then, stretching the limits is what Rapp seems to be doing. To what end, one might ask? The answer remains elusive.

Even the period and locale of the play are elusive (the program says “Anywhere and Somewhere, Now”). Though young Pointer talks a lot about disco, his knowledge of it comes only through his “magazine books” and his “radio machine.” So, who knows where or when? The characters talk of having no TV, and there’s nary a sign of a stove or a refrigerator.

The performances range from raw to convincing. Bates, subbing for Mitchell, seems hesitant in her approach to the agoraphobic matron of the family. But that could be a result of her newness to the role and her questionable youthfulness. (Of course, they do “have ’em young in the hills.”) Maxwell, occasionally thick of tongue as Pointer, is appropriately naïve. Cardellini strikes just the right note of off-beat ignorance and innocence as Pointer’s pregnant lover-outcast, Shirley, but the character’s dialogue is questionable; Shirley seemed just as surprised with the words coming out of her mouth as was this reviewer! Lynn’s Jeffcat is one-note, though solidly intoned. Larry Joshua, as Newt, Yardley emanates confidence and self-awareness, setting a high mark that the rest of the ensemble members seldom achieve.

The entire physical production, particularly Juliana von Haubrich’s evocative set, is redolent of circumstance and wonderfully detailed. A plastic outline of a TV set hangs on the wall framing a picture of a Christ-like figure with a menorah for a halo, and then there’s that ’50s auto rear end in the kitchen. Genny Wynn’s lighting is sometimes ghostly, sometimes vivid, always persuasive. Convincing sounds of rain, thunder, and woodsiness–courtesy of sound designer Drew Dalzell–add immeasurably to the ambiance of the world that Rapp and his careful director, Chris Fields, have created. It is truly a world unto itself, but Rapp gives us scant reason to follow him through it.

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