BWW Reviews: THE GHOST BROTHERS OF DARKLAND COUNTY at the Peabody Opera House
I guess when you're are a writer of Stephen King's stature you can't help be subject to expectations that are often simply too hard to live up to. Most of the criticism directed at The Ghost Brothers of Darkland County centers around the book he's cooked up for the show. He and composer (and rock icon) John Mellencamp had been kicking around this idea for about a dozen years, and when it was finally staged it was savaged in a number of ways, with most of the vitriol centered on King's narrative. I wonder if those critics felt the same way a few days after they'd posted their reviews. For me, I've found that the haunting mix of music and imagery has lingered in my memory long after I'd thought it would abate. Charged acting, a terrific roots rock and blues-inflected score, and a story that plays upon simmering tensions that threaten to boil over for the McCandless family, combine to produce something truly special and worthy of appreciation.
Joe McCandless has a secret. As a young boy, he was a witness to the death of his brothers, as well as the woman who came between them. He's seeing that same situation reassert itself in his sons. They too are at odds with one another, and a girl has chosen one over the other in much the same way as before. He gathers his family at the haunted McCandless homestead to tell the truth about what happened. He desperately needs the emotional release he'll receive once the facts are known, and he hopes it will provide the opportunity for his own sons to rise above their sibling rivalry. Of course, nothing quite goes as expected, but revealing any more would only spoil the outcome.
Billy Burke is dark and brooding as Joe, internalizing his feelings for so long that he can't fully function as a husband or a father. Gina Gershon makes an impression as his bitchy wife, who really just wants her husband and family whole again. Frank (Lucas Tavner) and Drake (Joe Tippett) are constantly bickering over their differences, in much the same way that Joe's brothers Andy (Travis Smith) and Jack (Peter Albrink) did so many years before. Kylie Brown (as Anna) and Kate Ferber (as Jenna) are interesting contrasts as the women who have found themselves between the feuding sets of brothers. Eric Moore stands out as caretaker, Dan Coker, who haunts the home along with Jenna, Joe, and Andy. Jake La Botz is the personification of evil as The Shape, and he gets his fair share of laughs with his darkly ironic asides and narrative intrusions. Jesse Lenat acts as a sort of guide to the action as the Zydeco Cowboy, a kind of narrative figure who, along with La Botz, can play a mean acoustic guitar as well as he delivers exposition. Zac Ballard does splendid work as the young Joe. Country music legend Carlene Carter also appears, although it's a pity she doesn't have more to do.
The band is pulled from members of Mellencamp's group, and includes: Andy York's remarkably evocative work on guitar, Dane Clark's solid percussion, Jon E. Gee's upright bass, and Troye Kinnett's equally moody keyboards and harmonica playing. All this wonderful music is directed by T-Bone Burnett, whose reputation in achieving a true roots-driven sound is unparalleled. A powerful number like "Tear This Cabin Down" truly rocks the house under their collective watch.
Susan V. Booth's direction works to continually ratchet up the tension in nice fashion, but the sparse staging means that we only have a projected backdrop to give us any idea of what this haunted house must truly look like. Sometimes less can be more, since it allows our imagination to fill in the blanks. So, Steven Cohen's set and lighting are simple and barren for the most part. The band occupies one side of the stage, while the middle and other side has chairs for the actors to sit on when they aren't an active participant. Daniel Pelzig provides the choreography, and what there is definitely fits the feel of the piece. With this minimalistic staging, I can understand perfectly why the show is being treated more as a concert event than an actual Broadway-bound tour. Some more tweaking may be necessary before all is said and done, but the bones are there, and they're the most important thing.
I was glad I had a chance to take in The Ghost Brothers of Darkland County at the Peabody Opera House (November 29, 2014). It's really a one of a kind show that you should try and check out if it comes your way. It may not be perfect, but it is undeniably memorable.