Warning: This review contains SPOILERS. If you plan to attend Handler, please save this critique and read it AFTER the performance.

No doubt it’s a form of blasphemy to suggest this, but more than anything else, the structure of Chapel Hill native Robert Schenkkan’s Handler now receiving its North Carolina premiere by Raleigh Ensemble Players reminds me of an episode of “The Simpsons.” The first third convinces you that the show will concern itself with Subject A. The second abruptly veers to Subject B and, sometimes, even gets to Subject C. Or in this case, to Subjects D, E, F, and G.

This is not necessarily a bad thing for a play that concerns itself, as Schenkkan’s does, with matters of faith, forgiveness, and redemption. Why, then, I wonder, does Handler resemble nothing so much as a shaggy-dog (or perhaps shaggy god) story?

Handler is, I hasten to add, a fascinating play, troubling and often beautifully written, and has been staged by REP artistic director C. Glen Matthews in his usual thoughtful, inventive manner. It is also physically torturous to watch, owing to Matthews’ decision to invoke an ecclesiastic rural atmosphere by dint of hard pine benches for the audience. This is to make us feel more like members of Schenkkan’s Holiness Way Church of the Living God congregation and which, not coincidentally, reinforces the notion of the theater as Thespic temple. But it’s a long play, and besides making it difficult to observe much of the action over the heads of one’s neighbors, it’s sheer hell on the lower back.

The Holiness Way Church is one of those fringe-y Pentecostal orders that take all too literally the business of snake handling as a testament of faith. Schenkkan’s notion that an attendant miracle throws everything into chaos, causing its participants to question their own core beliefs becomes itself something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Far from repudiating the methods of this extreme form of Fundamentalism, Handler comes close to endorsing them as a means of touching God. That is, when it isn’t twisting itself into an allegory in which the snake-bitten begins metamorphosing into a reptile himself. (A narrative thread that unravels without comment by the play’s end.)

I must, as a disclaimer, admit to a strong prejudice in matters of religion. As an agnostic and a lapsed (if not in fact prolapsed) Catholic, I have a marked aversion to organized religion in general and to what I consider the appropriation and perversion of Christ’s earthly, Semitic ministry in particular. That said, I did not expect, or want, Handler to demonize the Holiness Wayers or their spiritual guide Brother Bob. But any hope I may have had that Schenkkan would use his bully pulpit to examine zealous piety more critically, or at least to expose the falsity of what passes for the miraculous in modern Christianity, were drowned in lamb’s or is that snake’s? blood.

Perhaps because I place my faith in the hope of human potential, I am constitutionally unable to comprehend the keening, tongue-talking, and floor-writhing mob ecstasy that attends these rituals, which seem to me closer to the mass mania of the Nuremberg rallies than expressions of faith. I also find it incomprehensible that the two women in the play, depicted as intelligent, articulate even downright poetic figures could succumb to the sort of mindless superstition that feeds these frenzies.

What, for example, does her adherence to Brother Bob’s message profit the cancer survivor Alice (played with heart-stopping dignity, understatement, and what can only be called a state of grace by the peerless Christine Rogers)? The real miracle, it seems to me, is not only living with her pain but holding up despite it. As for the play’s central character Terri (Canady Vance-Tanguis), religious fanaticism appears to bring no solace from the loss of her daughter or the anger she feels toward the husband who inadvertently caused her death. Ironically, her desire to shame the church (and herself) in the matter of her newly-sprung prisoner husband Geordi (Zach Thomas) by refusing to embalm him provides the unintentional springboard for Geordi’s Lazarus-like resurrection. Yet the indictment dissolves in a flash of deus ex machina. (It doesn’t help that Thomas breathes quite obviously throughout his funeral service.) Even Geordi’s repudiation of what Bob assumes about his life-after-death experience, which turns the play in yet another thematic direction, is a ruse.

And what of the mountain man (Joseph Brack, ingratiating and scary) and his afflicted young daughter (the astonishing Kristin Killmer), whom Geordi encounters late in the play’s meandering second act? Bootlegging enabler, white supremacist, pimp for his own offspring, would-be infanticide and, finally, a phoenix either demonic or divine choose one from column A the character feels dragged in from another play, prolonging the action (or at least diverting us from it) to no discernable purpose.

My disappointment with Handler stems in large measure from the many examples of Schenkkan’s gift for sinewy poetics, most of which spring from Terri’s lips: a hotel maid, she speaks of finding an abandoned prosthetic leg in one of the rooms (shades of Flannery O’Connor); concerning Geordi’s unembalmed body she lashes out at Bob by turning his own gospel around on him (“Flesh is corrupt. Let’s all get a good whiff of it”); imagining a broadcast audience made up entirely of the owners of those canned laughs we’ve heard for decades, she conjoins show business and religiosity, observing “Dead laughter forever and ever world without end.” This is spectacular dramatic writing. But it’s employed in the service of something either too large, or too simple, for the playwright’s powers of imagination, and which eludes him as surely as the mystical elements peter out by the end of the evening: is the new life Terri carries in her womb at the close to be human, or reptilian? Do you care?

Matthews’s production is full of physical compliments to such language: an explosion of flashbulbs and shouted questions shatters a slow dim-out on a tender scene. A rainstorm is indicated by water running from overhead pipes and into the basins and wooden barrel that bracket the playing area.

Matthews’s vision is aided immeasurably through the expressionistic set design of Jennifer Baker and the evocative lighting by Thomas Mauney. Wooden slats bunched together in crazy angles can represent a makeshift tabernacle or a purgatorial campfire. Benches become a grave marker or, when pushed together, a double bed. Bare bulbs hang down on simple chords, giving an institutional sharpness to the church scenes while supple effects delineate the thick flora of an Appalachian forest. And the special effects artist Miyuki Su marvelously executes Geordi’s increasingly deathish and molting serpentine make-up.

Members of the Cadillac Stepbacks (Trent Boutz, Nathan Golub, and Jason Hedrick) provide a sometimes-pointed gospel and bluegrass commentary (and underscore) under the direction of Rus Hames, but occasionally overpower the actors, particularly in moments of quiet, contemplative address.

David Dossey lends forceful, rhetoric thunder and concomitant gentleness to Brother Bob, while Brett Wilson is sweetly condign as the speech-impaired Sam. Zach Thomas gives a compelling performance as Geordi, in a role that must be a great imaginative burden, given the character’s elliptical nature.

Of Canady Vance-Tanguis’ Terri, I can only attempt, stumblingly, to convey the actor’s breathtaking luminosity. There is truth in her every movement, and bitter reality in every word. A hard-won humor emerges from her angry trauma, exquisitely complimented by the serenity Vance-Tanguis exudes in her addresses to the audience. When she embraces the newly-risen Geordi, her first tentative, then impassioned fondling of him exhibits an uncanny sense of timing and rightness; the moment is so real you almost feel you’ve stumbled upon a scene of such intimacy you should apologize for the intrusion.

In her program bio, Vance-Tanguis states her intention to move from Nashville to Raleigh. I can only hope this happens, and soon. Talent like hers is its own form of benediction.

Second Opinion: Adam Sobsey’s Oct. 18th News & Observer review: http://www.newsobserver.com/theaterreview/story/2955404p-2711094c.html [inactive 5/04].

Raleigh Ensemble Players presents Handler Wednesday-Saturday, Oct. 22-25 and Oct. 29-Nov. 1, at 8 p.m. and Oct. 26, at 3 p.m. in Artspace Gallery 2, 201 E. Davie St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $15 ($10 students with ID and $12 military personnel and seniors 60+). 919/832-9607, TTY: 919/835-0624, gorep@juno.com, or http://www.realtheatre.org/HANDLERreservation.htm. http://www.realtheatre.org/pages/2004/shows/handler2004two.htm. Note 1: The Oct. 24 show will be a fully accessible performance sign-language interpreted and audio described with a tactile touch tour at 7 p.m. and large-print and Braille programs.