Not long into “Freed Spirits,” a new play by Daryl Lisa Fazio at Horizon Theatre, a tornado rips through Oakland Cemetery.
The room goes dark. Lightning flashes. Trees tumble. Tombstones topple. And before our very eyes, Moriah and Isabel Curley-Clay’s beautiful replica of the historic burial ground gets tossed and twisted around. Out of the wreckage, a ghost tale emerges.
Pay attention to this dazzling feat of stagecraft. It’s a marvel of design that won’t be topped again in this well-intentioned but uneven comedy, inspired by the actual tornado that blasted Cabbagetown and environs in 2008.
Commissioned by Horizon as part of its New South Play Festival, “Freed Spirits” gets off to a promising start in the character of Susan Dickey (Suehyla El-Attar). A cemetery guide dressed in a long Victorian mourning dress and hat, the recently widowed Susan is one of those lonely souls with too much time on her hands: Oakland has become her raison d’être.
When we first meet Susan, she is being videotaped by Keisha (Jimmica Collins), a young documentary filmmaker who is digging for a story. Keisha wants to excavate something spooky, something controversial.
But once the storm blows through this city of the dead, the mystery gasps and lurches for life.
As the verklempt Susan picks up the pieces and surveys the damage, she encounters Dr. Netta Finch (the wonderful Marguerite Hannah), a retired pathologist and dedicated master gardener who finds joy in tending the plant life of Oakland. Eventually, roving shutterbug Byron (Jonathan Horne) and resident Goth girl M.J. (Bryn Striepe) wander in.
Turns out that Susan has a powerful photographic memory and tendency to fall into a trancelike, recitative state. M.J. has an uncanny gift for figuring out a person’s background, based on his or her dress and snippets of conversation. It’s almost as if she’s a mind reader. Byron has a crush on M.J., and his heartsickness will manifest in other ways.
As the narrative sputters and starts, trying to find its way, there is a ghostly visitation by a Confederate solider (Spencer Kolbe Miller) and the slave girl he loved (Collins). A cache of supposed historic import is found and examined, and the characters go on a scavenger hunt of sorts, looking for lost clues in the cemetery, eventually discovering that not everything is as it seems.
Directed by Lisa Adler, the show features a strong ensemble. (El-Attar, in particular, is a marvel of acting details, and Hannah, who has built a career out of playing sassy characters who don’t suffer fools gladly, gets laughs by the mere arch of an eyebrow.) The design, as evidenced by that tempest scene, is quite impressive. (Lighting is by Mary Parker, sound by Thom Jenkins, projections by Bradley Bergeron and costumes by the Curley-Clays.)
And though you get the idea that there is a play in here somewhere — the setup is fun and the characters quirky — it takes a wrong turn early on and can never find its way out of the spooky mausoleums, the storm debris or the gates of Oakland Cemetery. It promises mystery and mayhem. But mostly it’s a mess.