In a little lakeside cabin in the backwoods of Louisiana, Joe McCandless' family members — the dead and the living — gather around him as he musters the courage to tell the true story of the tragedy that happened 40 years ago in that very room. Keeping the secret burns like acid in his veins, and so does the thought of revealing the truth — which may be his only chance to save his sons from sharing their uncles' tragic fate. So begins Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, a musical theater piece brewed up by novelist Stephen King, master of all things macabre, and roots rocker John Mellencamp, who knows all too well what darkness lurks in the heart of small-town America.
Despite their standing as two of the most popular and gifted storytellers of the past half-century, King and Mellencamp had no prior experience in theater, and knew they needed skilled hands to bring their creation to life. For 13 years, the project fermented, tended first by T Bone Burnett, who arranged the music and produced the all-star album of the piece, and later by veteran director Susan Booth, who brought it to the stage.
Booth is the highly regarded artistic director at Atlanta's Alliance Theatre, where Ghost Brothers premiered in 2012. (The company won the 2007 Tony Award for best regional theater.) Casting a production that's as much rock concert as stage play began a creative process that tapped all of her considerable abilities. The music covers an impressive array of styles, each subtly linking the piece to its setting in Louisiana. "The added wrinkle," Booth tells the Scene, "is that John's music isn't anything a traditional Broadway singer would have in their wheelhouse. So we had to find amazing musicians with the grit, the gravity, the straight-up musicianship to do John and T Bone proud."
And find them she did. Successful roots musician and established character actor Jake LaBotz plays The Shape, a devil-like character who gloats over his misdeeds in numbers such as the jug-band shuffle "That's Me." Kate Ferber, who portrays the now-dead vixen Jenna, tours regularly in One Child Born, a one-woman show she co-wrote celebrating the mercurial genius of the late singer-songwriter Laura Nyro. Bruce Greenwood, who plays Joe McCandless, is best known for his portrayals of John F. Kennedy in Thirteen Days and James T. Kirk's mentor Christopher Pike in two Star Trek films, but before becoming a professional actor, he toured as lead singer and guitarist in a rock band. His musical chops are evident as he grinds through his self-doubt in the brooding "What Kind of Man Am I" and struggles with the pain of secret-keeping in "How Many Days."
On the recording, Joe's story unfolds with an aching slowness, building the tension to a fever pitch — but just when the listener is salivating for the follow-through, the forward momentum evaporates, letting the dread hang like a dead weight and leaving us puzzled. The stage presentation adds several songs not included on the album that help delineate the plot, which spans four decades, but in a Variety review of the inaugural stage run last year, theater critic Frank Rizzo wrote that the story line was still unfocused.
Since then, Booth says she and the creators have been hard at work streamlining the production. They've pared back stage elements and multimedia enhancements that The New York Times called "fussy," and shifted the focus entirely to the story, the actors, the music and the audience's imagination. "We listened hard to that first audience, learned where they had questions, and then talked about which ones we wanted to answer and how best to do that," Booth says. "You don't answer them all, of course. That's the beauty of a Stephen King story: It's not done until you need to hash it out with someone else who saw it [or] read it."