BWW Reviews: New Moon Theatre Ghost Hunts with HAINT
For some months, I had been hearing strong, positive comments about a previous stage reading of actor/singer Justin Asher's original HAINT, and finally, tonight, after mounting publicity (including a spot on WKNO's Checking on the Arts and an article in The Commercial Appeal's GO MEMPHIS), I was able to attend the first, complete performance of the play, staged by New Moon Theatre at Theatre Works. Not since Jerre Dye's original CICADAS have I left a theatre in such a state of excitement; like Mr. Dye's play, which recently had a highly successful production in Chicago, this is a play born of a region and time - in this case, the isolated Ozarks of Arkansas in 1953.
Mr. Asher himself, in the Program Notes, states: "[M]y Grandfather used to tell me as a child about 'The Woman on White Horse Mountain.' It was a ghost story he told about a woman who wandered the hills, ringing a bell and searching for her missing son. And, according to him, if you ever ventured up to White Horse after dark you could still hear the ghost of the old mountain woman ringing her bell and calling for her lost child." Such isolated settings as the lonely foothills of the Ozarks and such peculiar women as Mr. Asher's midwife and herbal doctor "Mercy Seer" are not unknown to me. As a child in similar rural settings in the 1950's, I was wide-eyed at the ghost stories spun by my mother's friend Mrs. Randle, and I was intrigued by such nearby ladies as the isolated "Miss Sally" and "Miss Pinkie," who would occasionally walk miles until they passed our house on their way to the country store.
"Mercy Seer" is a great creation - and not entirely what we think she is. As veteran actress Janie Paris plays her, she is both strong and strange. Surrounded by her herbs (including the deadly nightshade), she is, as her free spirit son "Charlie" calls her, an "old bag of bones." She seems of the earth itself; in fact, her body, clothes, and dirty apron could all be one. Withdrawn from the rest of the world, she hovers over Charlie, both in his boyhood (the barefoot Jules Heck) and manhood (a rebellious David Geoffrey Hammons); their relationship is like an otherworldly "Amanda" and "Tom" from Tennessee Williams' THE GLASS MENAGERIE. Mercy lives in the past, and one of Mr. Asher's inspired creations is that of the bottle tree, for Mercy's grandmother had decided to collect bits and pieces belonging to each dead relative and putting them into a bottle to be hung from a tree. (When the wind blows and the bottles clink together, supposedly the souls have become animated and try to communicate with each other.) It's a great visual touch (and has been beautifully realized by Set Designer Chris Sterling).
When Mercy loses Charlie in a tragic accident, she becomes increasingly unhinged; and this allows Mr. Asher to resurrect the young Charlie in memory scenes, not unlike those in Arthur Miller's DEATH OF A SALESMAN. Mercy has lost Charlie, to be sure; but throughout the play, she must reclaim herself, and she must learn to love and help others. In order to do so, she must venture beyond the boundaries she has set for herself.
The "Haint," or ghost, provides the narration for much of the play. Unlike Mercy's rather coarse four-letter expletives (which elicit a lot of humor throughout the play), the narration of the ghost is much, once more, like that of "Tom" in GLASS: Probing, wise, poetic (in fact, the lines rhyme). Mr. Hammons' "will of the wisp" delivery here is at odds with the rambunctious altercations we have heard between mother and son.
Other characters whose lives intersect with these two are an interesting lot. There's the outwardly pious, inwardly poisonous "Mrs. Jessup," grandly played by Randi Sluder. (I kept imagining the stoutish Evelyn Varden in this role; few probably remember her as "Monica" in the stage and film versions of THE BAD SEED and the gossip in Charles Laughton's THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, but to those of us who revere invaluable character actresses, she was always a welcome presence.) At first this role seems a rehash of a characterization we've seen many times before; however, Mr. Asher allows her to transcend a comic stereotype by providing her with some fairly vicious exit lines. For my money, she's the most insufferable character in the play, and Ms. Sluder is more than up to the task.
Then there are the sheriff and his wife, played by Steven Burk and Aliza Moran. As the play unfolds, it's these characters who begin to demand our attention, and Mr. Asher has done an admirable job in raising hints and questions about their characters and relationship. (The sheriff, for example, seems sympathetic, tortured, weak, and brutal; it's a complex characterization, and perhaps the most intriguing in the play). As the work unfolds, we understand why each of these has reached out to touch the reclusive Mercy.
The writing here is often so good that I wanted to READ what the ghost was narrating - the lines needed to be considered and re-considered; however, Leigh Ann Evans, evincing a real connection with the play and its characters, kept it moving. That final fifteen minutes or so is a revelation; the conclusion - trust me here - is more than satisfying.
The lighting design by Summer Pike is perfect (I could swear I saw fireflies), and the Set Design by Chris Sterling lives up to that gentleman's last name. I myself have traveled well the world Mr. Asher has created, and I could not imagine its being any better staged - leaves gathered around a porch; loose, unpainted boards; peeling chair.
I observed a larger-than-normal representation of theatre folk on hand for this premiere performance. I think we can all agree that, with Mr. Asher's initial effort, we were part of a special theatrical event. It was a sold- out performance. Through June 15. Photo courtesy of New Moon Theatre.