Even before the house lights dim, “Ghost Brothers of Darkland County” starts creeping you out.
Once you get inside the Alliance Theatre, take a moment to stand in awe of Todd Rosenthal’s spectacularly spooky scenic design. Moss hangs from the rafters, and a dilapidated water tower ominously overlooks the skeletal frame of an eerily empty cabin.
There are isolated people positioned around the periphery of the set, mostly motionless, as though in limbo –- so it’s fairly startling to suddenly catch sight of a dream-like image walking across the stage, a recurring example of the visual effects that projection designer Adam Larsen will use to hypnotic and haunting effect once the show begins.
The names of Rosenthal and Larsen may not sell a lot of tickets (and that also goes for crackerjack lighting designer Robert Wierzel), but their work is just as crucial as that of any of their higher-profile cohorts. It’s one thing to concoct a fantastical idea for a musical horror story that twists and turns between illusion and reality, from the past to the present or from here to the hereafter. It’s another thing to logistically represent those parallel universes on a theater stage.
All the advance hype surrounding “Ghost Brothers” has been somewhat scary, too. How could it not be, as a world-premiere (no doubt Broadway-bound) collaboration between none other than Stephen King, John Mellencamp and T Bone Burnett? But never fear: Under the mesmerizing direction of our very own Susan V. Booth, the Alliance production lives up to it with an almost supernatural ease.
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As a prolific novelist, King is a legendary master of suspense. As a first-time playwright, he doesn’t really break new ground so much as he sticks to what he does best. Indeed, “Ghost Brothers” might impress as a freaky paranormal morality tale on the surface, but at its core it spins a story as ancient as Cain and Abel -- or, for one dysfunctional family living in backwoods Mississippi circa 2007, as recent as a mysterious tragedy from 40 years earlier.
Joe McCandless (intensely portrayed by the Tony Award-winning Marietta native Shuler Hensley) is the profoundly scarred patriarch of the family now, but back in 1967 he was a 10-year-old kid (Royce Mann) who suffered the loss of this two older brothers, Jack (Peter Albrink) and Andy (Travis Smith), contentious rivals for everything from a rifle-shooting competition to the affections of the same girl, Jenna (Kate Ferber).
That young Joe somehow managed to survive the traumatic ordeal isn’t exactly to say that he has lived to tell about it. For the rest of his life, Joe has been sadly resigned to burying it deep within himself and letting his inner demons eat away at him. When he finally realizes that his own grown sons, Frank (Lucas Kavner) and Drake (Justin Guarini), seem doomed to repeat the sins of their late uncles -- right down to a feud over the same girl, Anna (Kylie Brown) -- the time has come for Joe to speak his peace.
An outer demon takes the form of a tattooed punk-rock narrator of sorts called The Shape (an unforgettable Jake La Botz), who lurks throughout the story, not simply a detached observer of events but often subliminally guiding the characters and their actions from the beyond. If he’s the devil on their collective shoulder, the angel is Dan Coker (Christopher L. Morgan), the wise old barkeep of the symbolic Dreamland Café, who joins with Jack, Andy and Jenna as a wandering chorus of “left-behind spirits.”
Their poignant ballad “Home Again” is just one of some 20 songs in Mellencamp’s rousing score, a fusion of blues, country and rock that’s superbly performed by Booth’s 19-member cast. Under Burnett’s musical direction, the sensational four-piece band never misses a beat.
Notwithstanding the memorable solos by La Botz that open each act (“That’s Me,” “Lounging Around in Heaven”), the highlight among the production numbers (choreographed by Daniel Pelzig) is the pulsating Act I finale, “Tear This Cabin Down,” which essentially burns down the house in more ways than one (with another nod to Larsen’s innovative work).
The show spirals wildly out of control in its final 10 or 15 minutes, as King relishes the opportunity to find new theatrical methods for demonstrating his penchant for bloody mayhem. Nevertheless, watching how the bodies mount will leave you with chills.
“Ghost Brothers of Darkland County”
Through May 13. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. $45-$85. The Alliance Theatre (at the Woodruff Arts Center), 1280 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta. 404-733-5000. alliancetheatre.org.
Bottom line: A pretty awesome spectacle.