Imagine “Our Town” retold as a Southern Gothic tale, and you have something of the idea behind “The Devil Tree,” playing at the Goat Farm Arts Center through October 28. The Collective Project, the fledgling theatrical group that is mounting “The Devil Tree” as the second show of its inaugural season, has done an impressive job of creating an intricate, evocative world, weaving together multiple characters and storylines, though the play’s brimming fullness can often work against it as much as for it.
The show is set in fictional Laurel County, somewhere in the swampy, unfarmable land of a hot, muggy, nearly forgotten section of South Georgia. As with “Our Town,” we’re introduced to multiple characters. But unlike in “Our Town,” we get the sense that something is deeply wrong in Laurel — and it’s not just that the town’s residents aren’t seizing the day and living life to the fullest as in “Our Town.” There’s a show trial, presided over by a red-faced, hellfire-and-brimstone preacher who thinks nothing of taking on the role of judge, jury and interrogator. There’s a mad woman kept in an attic, some creepy legends about a mysterious tree, an unrequited young romance and so on.
Creating an atmosphere that’s authentically creepy and encompassing is not easy, but the Collective Project has managed it. The Goat Farm, the crumbling former cotton gin factory complex on Atlanta’s Westside, makes for a great setting. Stevie Roushdi’s dense and rich period lighting on Elizabeth Jarret’s in-the-round set of a giant found-object tree don’t just provide backdrop, they suggest a world.
Shape note singing, Spanish moss, show trials and bargains with the devil are all familiar Southern tropes. But as with the Collective Project’s earlier show, “The Red Herring,” which sent up the conventions of film noir, the elements feel energetically approached. “The Devil Tree” isn’t parodying Southern Gothic, though, but just the opposite. It utilizes the genre with a refreshing sense of authenticity. Its greatest accomplishment is in creating a sense of place, in approaching conventions and, as with “Red Herring,” showing how resilient they can be.
There are a lot of characters, and there’s a time shift as well, which can become confusing. At the beginning of Act II we meet a new cast of characters, played by the same cast of actors. There are two doctors in Act I, and the actor who plays the older doctor in Act I plays the younger doctor, now older, in Act II. (Follow? I managed to, but I suspected that some audience members were understandably confused.) The third-person narration — a character often describes his own action, such as “he places his hand on her shoulder” — works only occasionally. More often it’s redundant: we can see that he’s putting his hand on her shoulder, that she’s waiting impatiently.
The imagined Laurel County’s multiplicity works both to the show’s benefit and its detriment. Though this creepy world is compellingly bursting with people and stories, the narratives often stall. A woman imprisoned in a room is a static situation. Two boys with a magic box that grants wishes aren’t making the sort of complicated moral choices that grab our interest in a long play. And the disparate elements don’t quite coalesce into satisfying closure.
Eight clearly talented writers scripted the play, and in the end that may have been too many. It lacks forward movement, the sense of narrative pull, tightness and tidiness that is part of what gives a creepy oral legend its wallop. We’re given two of this and that — two doctors, two supernatural beings hovering over the action, two supernatural objects, two time periods — when often one would do. There’s effort to tie things together, but too often it feels like an effort to tie things together.
But “The Devil Tree” shows the imaginative focus and elaborate, smartly realized vision that confirm that the Collective Project is a new young theater group to watch.