Review: FREED SPIRITS—”the production has some compelling takeaways”
October 19th, 2016
Horizon Theatre commissions a brand new play, “Freed Spirits,”for its annual New South Play Festival. By Southern native Daryl Lisa Fazio, this delightful romp premieres just in time for Halloween.
Set in famous historic Oakland Cemetery, “Freed Spirits” focuses mainly on Susan, played by Horizon veteran Suehyla El-Attar. Susan is recently widowed and throws herself into being a knowledgeable docent at the cemetery.
We first meet Susan during an interview with a young documentarian, Keisha, played by Jimmica Collins. Keisha is intent on capturing a compelling story with drama and realism, and hangs on Susan’s every word. She mirrors the audience with her infectious eagerness to unravel the story.
Anxious and earnest, Susan possesses an eidetic memory that she can access like a database. At times, her impulse to recite information overtakes her like a self-soothing litany.
El-Attar’s unrelenting energy absolutely draws us in. Her quirks are endearing and we feel the immense care and affection she has for those around her, including the spirits laid to rest in the cemetery itself.
Susan volunteers with Dr. Netta Finch, played by Marguerite Hannah, a retired pathologist turned gardener. Netta is a suitable foil for Susan with her no-nonsense attitude and self-assured demeanor. Yet, she reveals a surprising side to her. Growing up in a funeral home, she developed abilities as a psychic medium. Leading a séance in the second act, she reveals a compelling depth to her humanity.
Hannah draws a down-to-earth portrait of a complex character, guarded and layered. As Netta chases the ghost of Mary, a slave, we feel her desperation. We want to dig deeper just as Mary digs up what appears to be her own remains.
Byron, played by Jonathan Horne, is a young romantic photographer, true to his namesake. Despite a heart condition, he soldiers on with the others, as he has through life without much of a connection to his parents. He is bright, eager to help, and doesn’t hesitate before jumping in headfirst.
Horne’s endearing nature makes Byron awkward and lovable, who provides some comic relief in his bumbling but determined nature.
Bryn Striepe steals the show as M.J. Bell, a self-appointed investigator dedicated to logic and deductive reasoning. As M.J. delivers her signature unsettling assessments of each character, she revels in her knowledge and skills. Her sense of superiority and rigor captures the imagination of Susan and Byron, who are nearly set in believing she is a superhero. All of this falls away once Susan learns the truth about her.
Striepe performs the truest homage to the inimitable Sherlock Holmes. Her aloofness, intensity, and eccentricity are practically Whovian.
Other characters of “Freed Spirits” share traits with Sherlock Holmes and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in a fitting tribute to the mystery genre. Like Holmes, Susan and MJ struggle with nicotine use. Netta and Byron have a shared interest in the spirit communication, as Doyle developed later in life.
An encounter with the apparition of rebel soldier McKinley Etheridge, played by Spencer Kolbe Miller, draws the gang into a richly textured ghost hunt with as many twists and turns as Oakland’s winding brick paths. As we move deeper into the narrative, the characters explore their connections with each other and reveal to us more about themselves.
More than just a mystery-comedy, the production has some compelling takeaways. People have layers. Fully embrace your weirdness. The process of getting to know someone is like unearthing a grave or a buried treasure.
“Freed Spirits” is an entertaining production with a beautifully constructed set with amazing attention to detail and lighting. Sure to appeal to wider audiences, this unique Atlanta production is perfect for the upcoming spooky season.
“Freed Spirits” runs through Oct. 30 at Horizon Theatre, 1083 Austin Ave NE in Atlanta. For tickets or information, call 404-584-7450 or visit horizontheatre.com