HOLY GHOSTS by Romulus Linney; directed by John Loven; scenery by James F. Pyne Jr.; lighting by Norm Dodge; produced by Ford's Theatre and the Peoples Light and Theatre Company.

With Catherine MacNeal, Michael McKee, Thomas Meigs Walter Rhodes and Mets Suber. At Ford's Threatre through October 26.

When one is handed, for one's own personal use, a name like Romulus Linney, it stands to reason one enters the world knowing a thing or two about mellifluous language.

"Holy Ghosts," which opened at Ford's Theatre last night, indicates that Romulus Linney, the man with that actual name, who wrote the play of that actual title, has gone on to learn a few more things about words -- including how not to waste them. This folk play in undeclared verse concerns a newlywed woman who flees home to join an evangelical sect and marry its leader, absconding, in the process, with her husband's pickup truck and some disputed household possessions. And all this is established in a few opening minutes, or about the time it takes most plays to get the houselights dimmed.

Then "Holy Ghosts" becomes a war of wits and convictions between Coleman, the distraught husband who has armed himself with a lawyer and come running after his wife and chattel, and the Rev. Obediah Buckhorn Sr., supported by his eccentric but loyal congregation of Pentecostal snake-handlers.

A few of the plot developments require a certain leap of faith to accept, but this is a play about faith, after all. It is about the will to believe and the will to disbelieve and the so-called rational mind that tries to steer a middle course. The question is: Are these folks, who regularly submit the sincerity of the faiths to the life-or-death judgment of a trunkful of copperheads and rattlesnakes, touched in the head? Or are such arduous rituals what the suppression of bitterness and cruelty and sin require?

That ponderously said, it is important to add that "Holy Ghosts" is a funny and easygoing play, with a consistently gentle tone even when its characters are hollering their lungs off, inspired either by anger or the call of Jesus. And the production, a package imported from the production, a package imported from the Peoples Light and Theatre Company of Malvern, Pa., maintain the mood from start to finish,with colorful, emphatic performances in all the principal roles, each actor putting equal care into both the ridiculous and sobering sides of his character.

Michael McKee makes a tense, eye-ball-rolling husband and Thomas Meigs a perfect sidekick for him as the old lawyer, a role he underplay to the hilt. As Rev. Buckhorn, Walter Rhodes seems about 25 years too young, but the flavor -- Oral Roberts mixed with Tom Snyder -- is just right even if it could use more aging. And Catherine MacNeal makes both the wife and her dilemma intriguingly credible. There are ten more able actors in the cast, and four snakes, about whom the only cause for criticism is that none produces a rattling noise or, indeed, seems to possess a suitable instrument for doing so.

James F. Pyne Jr.'s scenery, depicting the interior of the Amalgamation Holiness Church of God (somewhere in the southern United States), looks like an illustration from the Foxfire Book or the Whole Earth Catalogue for how to build your own meeting hall. Built for a multi-city tour, this setting sits on the Ford's stage about as comfortably as a frog on a lily pad. And the entire production -- although modest in emotional and intellectual ambitions -- marks one of Ford's better recent ideas.