Both playwright Adam Rapp and downtown theater company The Amoralists are known for their in-your-face works. Consider the brute force of Rapp’s Pulitzer finalist, Red Light Winter, or the bravura work done in the extremist acting group’s magnum opus, The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side. These are creative forces who have never stopped in the comfortable middle ground. Fortunately, they take us somewhere far beyond in Ghosts in the Cottonwoods. This is Rapp’s first full-length play. Though written a decade and a half ago, it is only now getting its New York stage birth, with Rapp also onboard as director and the Amoralists joining him for the first time as the show’s collective surrogate mother.
Ghosts is a dark, measured play that predicts some of Rapp’s best works, including Winter and this summer’s The Metal Children and skirts some of the tricks that troubled other later works like Bingo With the Indians and Essential Self Defense. Thanks to set designer Alfred Schatz’s excellent tableau, we immediately establish the setting as a sort of Appalachian Gothic (the same image evoked this fall in Soho Rep’s Orange, Hat and Grace). Bean Scully (Sarah Lemp) shares a tough but close bond with her son Pointer (Nick Lawson) in their shack as they await the return of elder son Jeff (James Kautz), who has escaped from prison.
But other visitors will arrive first. William Apps is Newton Yardly, a badly injured bounty hunter who stumbles upon the Scully’s door. Remember that creepy hitchhiker who terrorized the characters early on in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre? Apps projects the same kind of secret horror onstage, adding the first dose of suspense to this white-knuckle affair. It’s hard to tell, at first, whether he is more of a threat to himself or to Bean and Pointer.
By the time we find out, though, Shirley Judyhouse (Mandy Nicole Moore) has also turned up on this rainy night, with a potentially destructive announcement: she’s carrying Pointer’s baby. The sense of dread, and overall intensity of Rapp’s show, only deepen further when Jeff and a friend of his (Matthew Pilieci) finally arrive.
Rapp has created a world of anomie here – rules, justice,and civility have no need to apply, and his cast treats this material with a seriousness requiring major commitment on their end. They work so well together that it seems wrong to single any of them out, but the work is so strong, I’ll do it anyway. Leading the pack is Lemp as the broken Bean, a woman who has retreated into her own world for reasons both explained and merely suggested. It’s a harrowing portrayal that I imagine left more than just this reviewer breathless by show’s end.
Lawson is uncanny as the son Bean has dragged down into the sinkhole with her, and the nimble way the two of them move and deliver Rapp’s brilliant backwoods idioglossia is impressively eerie. Apps, Kautz and Pilieci all go full throttle in their embodiments of menace, while Moore’s subtle choices add up to haunting effect.
The execution of Ghosts is so perfect that one almost overlooks one puzzling problem with the show. Despite Rapp’s taut direction, it is unclear what the ultimate takeaway of the play is supposed to be. Ordinarily, that would count as a pretty damning charge, but Ghosts is such a solid oak that there is no point in cutting it open to count the rings. The curtain descends long before audience members can catch their breath enough to question what they have just witnessed. That’s more than enough to make this scary sojourn worth the trip.