By Jeff Douglas Messer
Sharyn McCrumb’s best-selling novel, Ghost Riders, comes to life (and after-life) onstage at Parkway Playhouse in Burnsville as its summer season moves into high gear. The tale, the characters and the mood of the play creep like an eerie fog moving along the ridgelines of the Appalachian Mountains.
Andrew Gall, Parkway’s producing artistic director did the heavy lifting, adapting the material from the novel as well as directing the production. It’s filled with Civil War ghosts, actual Civil War reenactment enthusiasts and a top-notch group of actors. The task of putting such a large story on stage is no small one, and Gall fit at least five hours of material into a little more than two hours of stage time. This means the audience has to invest a good bit of attention in the proceedings or risk being lost in the fog.
Set alternately in the 1860s and 2003, in the mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee, reluctant Civil War participant Keith Blaylock and his fiery wife Malinda (played by Scott Keel and Trinity Smith) cope with the struggles of a nation divided. Keith enlists in the Confederate Army, planning to get a gun and training, then defect to the Union. Malinda hatches a plan to go with him by cutting her hair and pretending to be Keith’s little brother, Sam. It’s a twist based on historical fact.
The Blaylocks and their compatriots are still haunting the mountains nearly 150 years later. Meanwhile, Civil War Reenactments are actually dredging up things thought long buried. Rattler, played by Michael Lilly, is blessed with the “sight” (he can interact with ghosts) and some Cherokee blood. A seasoned professional, Lilly is a pleasure to watch. As Rattler, he helps Maggie Raincrow (played effectively by Jenny Martin) ward off deer from her garden with a jar of urine. One of the funniest moments early on is when Lilly turns around with an empty jar, then back a minute later with a full one.
The leads down some dark and ominous paths. It is compelling material with closing images that remind the audience that these were real people, and mostly real events. The scenic and lighting design are both impressive, and the rustic setting of Parkway Playhouse adds to the overall character of the piece.
Ghost Riders runs through June 21 at Parkway Playhouse with shows on Fridays and Saturdays, at 7:30 p.m., and Sundays, at 3 p.m.. $10-$22.