‘It’s Tennessee Williams in Hell’

Cause we’re brothers, brothers, brothers
I don’t approve of anything you do
Cause we’re brothers, brothers, brothers
Cain and Abel and me and you

–John Mellencamp, “Brothers”

Rated SK

For more than thirty years, I’ve been listening to John Mellencamp sing about the struggles of life, love, race, and redemption. For approximately that same amount of time, I’ve been reading Stephen King’s stories about the struggles of good versus evil and…well, redemption. Ever since I learned that the two idols of my youth had collaborated to create the Southern gothic musical Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, I’ve been bouncing around the Internet like a puppy chasing a tennis ball, looking for any news or information I could find about the production. With boundless anticipation I waited, longing for the announcement of show dates much the way neophiles slobber over rumors about the latest Apple gadget.

At long last, on April 28, I attended the matinee showing of Ghost Brothers.

I was not disappointed.

True to the character of both artists’ previous works, Ghost Brothers is, at its core, a tale of redemption. Two present-day siblings, Frank and Drake McCandless, are constantly at each other’s throats, much to the chagrin of their beleaguered father, Joe “Skunk” McCandless, and their no-nonsense steel magnolia of a mother, Monique. When the rivalry becomes violent–to the point of Drake breaking Frank’s arm–Joe attempts to intervene. He calls a meeting at the family’s cabin in Lake Belle Reve, Mississippi, hoping to accomplish two objectives: to prevent his sons from killing each other and to clear his own conscience. Meanwhile, Frank has formed a relationship with Drake’s girlfriend, Anna, who only stokes the fires of the brothers’ animosity.

It turns out that the boys’ uncles, Joe’s older brothers Jack and Andy, had in 1967 allowed their own rivalry to fester to the point that it cost both of them their lives, not to mention the life of their mutual love interest Jenna and (possibly) Dan Coker, an elderly black man who was the caretaker of the family’s cabin and who, for reasons not exactly clear at first, also tends bar at The Dreamland Cafe, which Joe frequents.

As a ten-year-old child, Joe witnessed the deaths of his brothers and Jenna in 1967. He has never come clean about what happened to them. Now that his own sons are at risk of repeating history, he finds himself struggling with the truth. If he tells what he knows, will it put a lid on the boiler of the modern rivalry? Or will he simply provide more fuel to the demons that have haunted him his entire life?

To make matters more complicated, the living McCandless family’s thoughts, words, and actions are all quietly influenced by a malicious devil figure known as The Shape, who makes it his business to both enflame resentment and offer one-liner witticisms to the audience about the events as they unfold. Meanwhile, Dan Coker, Jenna, and the deceased McCandless brothers all work to mitigate the evil influence of The Shape and come to terms with the circumstances of their own tragedy in the wake of the one unfolding before them.

Mix all that twisting Stephen King plot together with the emotionally charged music and lyrics of John Mellencamp, and you get exactly what The Shape says you get: Tennessee Williams in Hell. The story is brilliant. If you get emotionally invested in it, the ending might even force you to swallow a lump. The musical numbers are foot-stomping. “Tear This Cabin Down” at the end of the first act makes you want to stand in your seat. But it is the skill of the actors and the never inappropriate use of the projected special effects that really makes this show the entertainment that it is. Both The Shape and the projector act as a sort of Greek chorus to the events of the play. As such, something interesting is always happening in every corner and crevice of the set. Often you’ll find yourself eyeballing areas of the set that have little to do with the current main action because you’ve caught a glimpse of a ghost, or a phrase, or an image from the past that reflects the thoughts and feelings of the character emoting.

The entire cast is superb. I happened to see the show at a time when Gwen Hughes, a member of the ensemble and understudy to Emily Skinner, was playing mother Monique McCandless. In spite of the criticism about female characterizations that was offered by one member of the audience during the after words, Hughes’ portrayal of Monique led me to the conclusion that her character was actually the strength in the family. I have no doubt that if we had been allowed to follow the McCandless family from marriage through the boys’ early years, it would have been Monique alone that held them together for as long as they were. She can also take a punch to the mouth better than most men. In fact, it is only when tragedy befalls Monique that the rest of the fecal matter is splattered by the spinning blades.

Then there’s The Shape, played by Jake La Botz. As in any Stephen King tale, it is always the purely malicious character who is the most fun. Part sideshow barker, part Hank Williams, and all devil, The Shape is evil, charming, and able to make you laugh. Part of you even wants to root for him.

In the end, though, I was most impressed with the performance of Christopher L. Morgan as Dan Coker, the elderly black man who primarily serve’s as the Mother Abigail/God figure of this tale. Morgan himself is a young man, but I never would have guessed had I not looked at the cast photos in the playbill. From my spot in the Mezzanine, Morgan truly had me believing that he was a hobbling older fellow. Additionally, he has an incredible singing voice that probably could have filled the auditorium without the use of amps and mics. Morgan’s portrayal of Coker is the heart and soul of this play, as far as I’m concerned, and I wish that he’d been explored with a little more depth.

In fact, my sole criticism of this production is that Dan Coker’s living role during the events of 1967 seemed glossed over in more than one way. We do find out that his death is related to the deaths of the older McCandless brothers and Jenna, but how is only briefly touched on during a family discussion about the broken grandfather clock that stands in the cabin. Secondly, there’s a brief mention about the role of 1960s racism in Dan Coker’s life. “It was always convenient to have a black man around to blame,” he says at one point, which leads the audience to the conclusion that Coker was suspected of having been involved in the deaths of the three youths. Again, it’s only hinted at. Given both Mellencamp’s and King’s passions for the Civil Rights Movement, I was a little disappointed that, at times, Coker’s role in the story seemed to be little more than an aside.

Overall, however, I couldn’t have been more fulfilled in my expectations for Ghost Brothers. It is my sincere hope that this production will move beyond Atlanta after its May 13 closing date there. This tale may be Southern gothic in the truest traditions of that genre, but it is one that all of the country needs to see.