Ghosts in the Cottonwoods

Written and directed by Adam Rapp

Mandy Nicole Moore, Nick Lawson and Sarah Lemp in Ghosts in the Cottonwoods. Photo by Annie Parisse.

BOTTOM LINE: An interestingly disturbing, beautifully directed exploration of vain attempts at progress within a stagnant, backwoods family.  

It seems Thomas Wolfe was correct about the impossibility of returning home, or at least he was right when it comes to this family. With the holiday season imminently approaching, Adam Rapp's Ghosts in the Cottonwoods, now playing at Theatre 80, takes the opportunity to illuminate the perils of familial encounters and the demons such returns stir up.

In a rough-cut home where a deceased father's bowler hat is the sole showpiece on a crumbling wall and a lonely noose hangs at the ready to keep mud slicks from dragging the house away, it is no surprise that death and decay creep in through the very floorboards. The play opens on this grungy site, as Bean Skully sucks on the leech welts that cover the naked body of her full-grown son, Pointer. On this very special, rain-drowned night, Bean and Pointer wait excitedly for the return of their older son, jailbird Jeff, tinkering away while shooting nervous, lightening quick Country-Cockneyesque jabs at one another. Soon enough, though, two unexpected guests from the outside world arrive to disrupt the anticipative festivities, bringing with them the dark truths, and ghosts, of the family's past.  

Rapp unravels an unsettling though believable tale of off-the-grid countrified life in rural America, replete with deeply scarred but deliciously dichotomous characters. Epitomizing the sort of fundamentalism only the American South can offer, illiterate Bean criticizes everything from Pointer's desire for the Big City to his newfound education regarding the link between cigarette smoking and birth defects, despite being painfully aware of the frailty of her constitution. Pointer charismatically captures a supreme cultural mash-up of BET and provincial naïveté, complete with handmade Rockawear skivvies. Monstrous Jeff, most haunted by the family's ghosts, resides somewhere between animal and man, but also carries with him the crushingly poignant knowledge painfully gained while incarcerated.  

Well-written and engaging, Ghosts in the Cottonwoods is a distressingly captivating look into the themes of progress and stasis within a marred and insular family. Is it ever possible to truly eschew the ghosts of the past or does scar tissue inevitably bind them to us? A number of dismal questions regarding blame and responsibility concerning very dreary, but sadly all-too common family issues are laid out, and though retribution is enacted on stage, the questions remain unanswered. Much like Rapp's other work, Ghosts in the Cottonwoods leaves the conviction to the audience. He admirably does not claim to represent the moral high ground, but raises valid points that indeed ought to be discussed.  

The Amoralists, then, are the perfect pairing for what Rapp is playing with. True to name, The Amoralists Theatre Company tout their mission as producing work that offers no moral judgment and honest expression of the American condition. The talented ensemble cast, composed of Nick Lawson, Sarah Lemp, William Apps, Mandy Nicole Moore, James Kautz and Matthew Pilieci, are convincingly disturbing and quite impressively directed by Rapp himself. 

Alfred Schatz's wonderful set truly captures the cobbled-together life Bean has tried to make for her sons: an incredible mess of stolen car parts, PVC piping and various pawnshop treasures echo Bean's desperately painstaking attempts at creating a proper home life. The mysterious junkyard trees that surround the Scully shanty, created by Jenna Levine, reiterate this crudely homespun existence. As the action grows increasingly violent on stage, Eric Shimelonis' sound design sneakily steals in to assist with stomach knotting.

While not for the faint of heart or blood-queasy, Ghosts in the Cottonwoods is a terrifically directed and acted play that offers thought-provoking points of discussion concerning disquieting family relationships. Pleasant is not a word that can be used to describe this production, but worthwhile certainly should be.  

(Ghosts in the Cottonwoods plays at Theatre 80, 80 St. Marks Place between 1st and 2nd Avenues, through December 12, 2010. Performances are Mondays at 8pm, Thursdays at 8pm, Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are $40 ($20 for students) and are available at or by calling 212.388.0388.)