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Ghosts in the Cottonwoods

Adam Rapp's early play about an unusual family reunion is a furious assault on the senses.

Sarah Lemp and Nick Lawson
in Ghosts in the Cottonwoods
(© Annie Parisse)
In one of the more harrowing moments of the Amoralists' production of Adam Rapp's Ghosts in the Cottonwoods at Theatre 80 -- and there are many -- a woman is brutally raped by a desperate man who finishes the deed, then wraps himself in her limp arms. This sort of agonizing violence and an inconsolable longing for affection have cropped up repeatedly in the Obie-winning author's canon since he first penned this work nearly 15 years ago. And like many of his plays, this one is a furious assault on the senses -- in the most cathartic way possible.

As in other Rapp works, there is a mother-son relationship with questionable boundaries and plenty of high-octane encounters in confined quarters. The tension starts as soon as the play begins, as widow Bean Scully (Sarah Lemp) tends to the welts on the naked body of her teenage son Pointer (Nick Lawson) in their shabby boondocks home, with no plumbing and only random recycled bits of furniture. While an unrelenting storm rages outside, they wait on older son Jeff (James Kautz), who's escaped after six years in prison.

Instead, Newt (William Apps), a dangerous mystery man with a gunshot wound, appears, as does Shirley (Mandy Nicole Moore), Pointer's cute-as-a-button gal pal. Both have surprises, but neither can best Jeff's entrance -- through the floorboards. And once he is joined later by a fellow inmate (Matthew Pilieci), the homecoming turns into anything but the happy reunion Bean expected.

Rapp, who once again directs his own work, couldn't have asked for better collaborators than the spunky Amoralists troupe. At times, the speeding-bullet pace of the dialogue, coupled with the characters' Appalachian-sounding dialects, is dizzying, but they toss themselves into the playwright's ferocious environs with reckless abandon and careful assuredness.

Although Rapp's writing method at the time appeared to involve throwing as many unhinged characters, symbols and ideas into the mix as 90 minutes will allow, a raw, poetically beautiful quality emerges. Holes, both in the earth and within the characters, play a prominent part, as do the trees that grow from them. Likewise, this admirable early effort effectively shows the seeds from which Rapp's audacious career sprung.