As Holy Ghosts opens, a young woman, Nancy Shedman, sweeps out a sparsely furnished room in a ramshackle house that contains stacked folding chairs, benches, and an old piano. She has just fled her husband of one year to join a group of Pentecostal Christians offering her sanctuary in their farmhouse-church. Disillusioned by a childless marriage punctuated by beatings and drunkenly ineffectual lovemaking, Nancy has left home with her husband’s furniture, possessions, and pickup truck. Aiding her in the move was Obediah Buckhorn, Jr. (called Oby), a passerby camper volunteering scriptural consolation who took her to his preacher father for counseling.
In act 1, Nancy is surprised by the entrance of her irate husband, Coleman, a redneck owner-manager of a fish farm. Hurt and humiliated, he accuses Nancy of infidelity and demands both the return of his chattels and a divorce. To facilitate the latter, Coleman has brought Rogers Canfield, an elderly alcoholic lawyer escaping a depressing retirement. The shabby but gentlemanly Canfield enforces a testimonial procedure for the angry couple to air grievances. Oby, a huge, childlike man, arrives and is reviled by Coleman for adulterous wife-stealing. Oby corroborates Nancy’s story of the drunkenly abusive behavior that impelled her departure, Oby’s celibate involvement, and his father’s proposal of marriage—thereby astonishing Coleman, who thought Oby his rival. Agreeable to divorce but not to returning possessions claimed as her just due, Nancy hotly refutes Coleman’s portrayal of himself as a caring husband betrayed by a perfidious wife.
As the Shedmans argue, a motley group of poor white southerners intermittently arrive, gathering for a religious service. One carefully carries in two large wooden boxes. The group is a strange collection of human flotsam, including a terminal cancer victim named Cancer Man, a grief-deranged owner of a dead bird dog, an expelled female Sunday school teacher, two hot-tempered but affectionate homosexual construction workers, a lady churchgoer made outcast for raising her skirts for any “good Christian boy,” a shotgun-wedded couple with baby, and the simple-minded Oby. The irrepressibly foul-mouthed Coleman overtly jeers at the oddness of the gathering.
The aging Reverend Obediah Buckhorn, Sr., enters, fondly kisses Nancy “with a gleam in his eye,” calmly forestalls Coleman’s rude queries, and announces the service to begin. The pastor’s followers swiftly rearrange the room, placing the wooden boxes next to a makeshift altar. An erected sign reads, “Amalgamation Holiness Church of God with Signs Following.” After hymns and prayers, Buckhorn welcomes Nancy to the fold. Impatiently, Coleman interrupts the service and, refusing to budge until his marital dispute is resolved, seats himself on the boxes. Kicking them in anger, he discovers them to contain deadly snakes and cries incredulously to the congregation, “My God. You’re Pentecostal snakehandlers.”
The audience learns that the sect’s faith is based on a literal reading of Mark 16:17-18, which asserts the believers’ salvation from damnation, signified when “in my name . . . they cast out devils. . . . They shall take up serpents. . . . ” Should a follower be bitten and die, it is a sign of insufficiency of faith.
In act 2, Buckhorn responds to Coleman’s accusation with the admission that their religion is illegal and dangerous, confessing that absent members do lie seriously ill or dead. Coleman entreats Nancy not to stay in this “insane asylum,” but she refuses to leave. The congregation rallies around her and retaliates to Coleman’s gibes with anger and supplication. Aware of the skeptic in their midst, the church members present self-revelatory testimonials illuminating their private torments and reasons for embracing a religion of acceptance, fellowship, and faith. Buckhorn’s revelation that he has fathered seventeen children and buried five wives...
(The entire section is 1,396 words.)