“Broomstick,” the new play by celebrated playwright and novelist John Biguenet, is devilishly ambitious in its simplicity.
For all of the production’s dazzling detail of decay and rot, the show is ultimately one woman in a spooky glow, spinning a yarn of terror and loss.
Guided by director Amy Boyce Holtcamp, a virtually unrecognizable Liann Pattison slithers through Biguenet’s rhyming couplets to welcome an unseen guest back to her Appalachian cabin, fled many moons ago.
This mysterious woman of charms and curses desperately wants the weary traveler to stay a spell and clear up a misunderstanding over the contents of a fateful meal.
What follows is part explanation, part justification and all verbal chicanery.
Biguenet, Holtcamp and Pattison are attempting to create an event that returns theater to its primal roots.
Much like Denis O’Hare’s recently departed and insanely good “An Iliad,” “Broomstick” is a theatrical gamble that banks on an archetypal story merged with virtuoso acting skill. It creates a gripping tale to be told with the lights off.
And while it comes up a hair of newt short, “Broomstick” casts a wonderful spell of language, production and performance. The opening show of Southern Rep’s season, it flirts with greatness throughout, and it still has a chance to get there as it deepens into the contours of its run.
Any successful conjuration requires the ingredients be followed with a meticulous precision, and that is the great strength of “Broomstick.” It begins with the words of the production’s O Henry Award-winning author.
The dust, cobwebs and dried leaves of fall cover Biguenet’s language. The playwright, gifted author of “Rising Water,” manages the difficult juggling of story, texture and poetry.
It’s his strongest theatrical effort to date, giving full range to his use of cumulative detail to create a backwoods boil of lost children and hidden hexes.
Whether it’s stories of baked goods to seduce wayward siblings or tales of ancient mariners, he never loses track of the fact that they are all told purposely by his diabolist to enthrall the listener into staying.
And Holtcamp and Pattison give that poetry full theatrical reality.
Holtcamp slowly builds a world of cooking and cleaning that allows Pattison to inhabit the space. Cutting food exacts vengeance, pouring tea makes amends, and clearing dust opens doors to stories of lives lost long ago.
And in the middle of it all, Pattison bites the language in bitter fashion begging us to understand that witches are not active agents of malice but instead women who simply have the power to act in ways most of their sex are denied.
Scenic artist David Raphel, costumer Cecile Covert and lighting designer Joan Long help create the evening’s eerie magic with their attention to detail.
About the only thing that prevents “Broomstick” from soaring into the night sky is its muted sense of playfulness.
As technically sure and creepily menacing as she is, Pattison only occasionally captures the ghoulish fun of the proceedings. Chilling the bones with her darker insinuations, she occasionally misses the wicked fun. It is in smaller supply than the viewer might expect and is instead provided by a number of technical tricks that leave you wanting more.
It seems a matter of emphasis rather than capability, because Pattison masterfully presents the character’s humanity in her portrayal of disappointment.
Perhaps acknowledging the verse’s sleight-of-hand from time to time, as if she were casting a spell, might lift the gloominess of the affair, replacing it with a more mischievous verve.
Doing that might have given the performance the final element to lift it into brilliant silhouette: an understanding of why any child would follow this sympathetic monster home.
But much of what I gleaned missing will appear as the mixture roils.
As Pattison develops a deeper relationship with attending audiences, I would not be surprised if the honed toils and troubles of the character give way to something more delectable.
Because, even now, it is a brew worth sampling.
Jim Fitzmorris writes about theater. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.