There is hardly any ethnic or religious group that is not maligned in “Holy Ghost,” Jon Tuttle’s World War II-era drama now having its West Coast premiere at Theatre of Note in Hollywood. Even the Amish, for God’s sake!
But what can you expect at a prisoner of war camp in South Carolina where the German prisoners are called “niggahs” and the African-Americans who guard them are called “schwartzes?”
There is a black sergeant (Phil C. Curry) and a Nazi lieutenant (Brad C. Light) who bully everyone indiscriminately. The Nazi lieutenant, in fact, keeps discipline in the camp by hanging dissenters — and occasional exposed Jews. These are the “holy ghosts” of the camp, tolerated by the American camp commander (Doug Burch) because these sudden ominous disappearances ensure that the other prisoners won’t make trouble.
The Nazi lieutenant justifies his political views by continually pointing out American injustices. “Every country has its own Jews,” he says. “The blacks are America’s Jews.”
Into this toxic environment comes a conscientious objector, an “ex-Jew” named Bergen (Dan Wingard), who considers religion an “intellectual diversion.” Bergen is charged with teaching the prisoners about American culture: art, literature, history, and civics. Improbably, he decides that the best way to do this is to put on a play, “Abe Lincoln in Illinois,” with the prisoners doing the acting. It doesn’t seem to occur to him that the message might be lost among some 200 prisoners who neither speak nor understand English.
To play the part of Lincoln, Lt. Bergen chooses Cetnik (Rick Steadman), a sweet-tempered prisoner identified as “a Slav, or a Serb, or something.” This gives Bergen the opportunity to declaim, with lavish gestures, some of Lincoln’s political speeches, and Cetnik to imitate him with incomprehensible mouthings and elaborate mimicry. This, I think, is supposed to be the funny part.
Eventually, Cetnik simply walks away from the camp and Henry (Rich Pierre-Louis), the African-American private who was responsible for guarding him, dashes off to recapture him. They have various adventures in racist, hillbilly America, equally destructive to both of them. Doug Burch, who plays the camp commander, also plays a self-righteous Christian, a minister who delivers a quietly menacing polemic, and at one point the fugitive and his captor wind up together in a small boat, rowing down the river and philosophizing like Huck Finn and Jim.
Meanwhile, back at the camp, Lt. Bergen is having his own crisis of faith and rethinking his own “ex-Jewishness.”
This over-long (nearly three hours) not very subtle dissertation on bigotry and racism is also a cautionary tale about communication, and the lack thereof. There is even an old woman (Reena Dutt) who commiserates with Henry in Gullah, which provides him with little comfort and the play with little forward motion. It, like many other scenes, seems to have been added just to insure that no ethnic group is overlooked. (The play even includes a Quaker who has been ex-communicated from the Society of Friends.)
The cast does the best it can with its wobbly material, however. Especially good are Dan Wingard, Doug Burch, Rick Steadman, and Rich Pierre-Louis, who bring real zeal and some humanity to the proceedings. And director Michael Rothhaar keeps things moving apace, although he would have done a better service by cutting some of it.
Dan Mailley’s set design, in contrast, is cut to the bone. It consists of benches and chairs reconfigured to create a mess hall, a riverboat, and even a pickup truck bouncing along a nighttime road.
“Holy Ghost” does offer a lot to think about. But unfortunately, not very profoundly, and not for very long.
“Holy Ghost” will continue at Theatre of Note, 1517 N. Cahuenga Blvd., in Hollywood, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 7 p.m. through May 30. Call (323) 856-8611 for reservations.
Cynthia Citron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.