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A pentecostal group portrait. San Diego theater brings production to N.Y.C.

Holy Ghosts Play by Romulus Linney. Directed by Douglas Jacobs.

The Joyce Theater Foundation is concluding its 1987 American Theater Exchange with an impressively energetic mounting of Romulus Linney's ``Holy Ghosts.'' Although it has been frequently staged by regional theaters, this oddly stirring drama about a Southern snake-handling cult has been seen previously in New York only Off Off Broadway.

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The San Diego Repertory Theatre debuts here with its prizewinning production of ``Holy Ghosts,'' thus enlarging a well-established reputation while also contributing to the achievements and purposes of the American Theater Exchange.

``Holy Ghosts,'' at Theatre 890, explores the earthy humor, discernment, and compassion Mr. Linney examines in the specimen lives of an American underclass for whom group religious ecstasy provides a kind of compensation for a drab and impoverished existence.

In their mutual affection and forgiveness as much as in their wildly uninhibited worship, Linney sees a yearning for grace and for the binding kinship of shared beliefs.

As the play opens, Coleman Shedman (Bradley Fisher) has pursued his errant wife, Nancy (Diana Castle), to the shabby premises of the pentecostal church in which she has taken refuge.

Coleman is accompanied by Rogers Canfield (W. Dennis Hunt), the bibulous lawyer the irate husband has hired to handle his divorce proceedings against Nancy.

The aggravations and recriminations of the Shedmans' intense domestic dispute supply the central situation around which Linney develops his pentecostal group portrait.

Coleman soon discovers that, in addition to carting off most of their belongings in his pickup truck, Nancy has unwarily agreed to wed middle-aged Obediah Buckhorn Sr. (Ollie Nash), the much-married pastor of these rural evangelicals.

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As the stomping, shouting, and gospel hymn singing progress toward the mimed snake-handling climax, ``Holy Ghosts'' pauses for intervals of confession, declarations of loving fellowship, and outbursts of fundamentalist fervor. The steamy events have been carefully orchestrated and organized by director Douglas Jacobs.

The spectator grows to perceive and, at least to an extent, fathom the drives that motivate Linney's volatile, earnestly voluble worshipers. The dramatist leaves the audience to draw its own inferences from the calculated irony of the play's conclusion.

The effectiveness of the folk drama is enhanced by D. Martyn Bookwalter's drably cheerful scenic and lighting design and by Ray C. Naylor's costumes.

Victor P. Zupanc and Linda Vickerman share honors for directing the important incidental gospel singing; Mr. Zupanc provided the realistic sound effects of recorded rattles and hisses.

``Holy Ghosts'' continues here through Aug. 29.

In John Beaufort's review of ``Holy Ghosts,'' published Aug. 13, some words were inadvertently dropped from the third paragraph. It should have read: ``Holy Ghosts,'' at Theatre 890, explores the earthy fundamentalism of a small pentecostal church in the present-day rural South. With humor, discernment, and compassion, Mr. Linney examines the specimen lives of an American underclass for whom group religious ecstasy provides a kind of compensation for a drab and impoverished existence.

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