Snake Oil 

What good is handling serpents if you can't handle storytelling?

Even atheists comprehend, on some level, why people might go to a place of worship. But almost everyone, including the religiously inclined, has a hard time stomaching the rural Pentecostal sects that handle venomous snakes as proof of their faith. Holy Ghosts, the Romulus Linney play now at the Beck Center, admirably takes on this disturbing topic without a whiff of condescension. Still, the structural flaws of the script, as well as overheated performances and production effects, drain the passion from this play.

All the action takes place in a one-room building that serves as home for the Amalgamation Holiness Church of God. This is where young Nancy Shedman has come, seeking shelter from her abusive husband Coleman. She escaped her household, taking most of their possessions -- including the pickup truck. So an enraged Coleman, eager to get his stuff back and file for a divorce, shows up at the church with a fusty country lawyer named Rogers Canfield (Michael Regnier).

Once in the church, things get complicated. Coleman learns that Nancy is planning to marry Obediah Buckhorn Sr., the sixtysomething head of the flock. As the negotiations begin between Nancy and Coleman, the parishioners arrive and, while getting ready for that day's service, overhear the rude Coleman rail against his wife and the pastor, whom Coleman considers a dirty old man.

By beginning the play with so much exposition (first Coleman tells his side of the story, then Nancy, then Canfield), the energy level lowers later in the show. Indeed, the whole play feels outlined like a high-school report, with one congregant after another eventually standing to deliver a "come to Jesus" testimony, while Coleman, predictably, scoffs and jeers. This clunky format is not aided by director Matthew Wright, who allows Coleman (Nicholas Koesters), among others, to chew the scenery with impunity.

There are some interesting stories (one man is obsessed with the ghost of his dead dog; another fellow is dying of cancer). But all are used as snapshot cameos, so we aren't able to get involved with any of them. Oddly, there is also a gay couple -- two burly truck drivers -- who cuddle and even kiss amid a Pentecostal denomination that abhors homosexuality and generally bans gays. Why an exception was made is never explained.

Laurel Johnson's Nancy is a credible backwoods gal, and, playing Obediah, A. Neil Thackaberry seems entirely appropriate as a well-meaning but small-minded leader. But the culminating snake-handling scene, drenched in screams and moans, suffers from the awkward miming of invisible snakes (oooh, scary) and a snake-cage platform that lights up red, like a Vegas slot machine, every time the lid is lifted. The passion of faith deserves better effects -- and a more insightful storyline.

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