Holy Ghosts -- At Ford's Theater through October 26.

Not since the mouse in "Charlie and Algernon" has an actor made such superanimal efforts to keep a show alive as do the snakes now appearing in "Holy Ghosts," at Ford's Theater.

The mouse is out of a job; he personally got rave reviews in New York, but the show didn't. The snakes in "Holy Ghosts" writhe their little hearts out, but that isn't enough, either.

The problem is that the snakes were given all the action but they don't even appear on stage for nearly two hours.The rest of the play, which has some good writing and some good writhing by other members of the cast, is not action but summary.

The scene is the church of a Pentecostal, snake-handling sect to which a rough young man has traced his runaway wife, in hopes of collecting a divorce, the furniture, his heirlooms and his Dodge pickup truck. Unless you can interest yourself in the custody of the Dodge, there is no conflict here.

But in come the members of the congregation -- a pair of pugnacious homosexuals, a half-wit who has visions of his dead dog, a Sunday-school teacher bitter at having been forcibly retired from the Methodist church, a browbeaten housewife, a terminal-cancer victim, a shotgun family, a woman who uses churches for sexual pick-ups and the preacher and one of his sons from one of six wives he "wore out."

Each one gets up and tells his or her story, and then each one gets up again and adds to the story. No action here -- just summary.

Every once in a whle the husband, rudely but understandably, says things like "I don't want to hear your God damned story" and "Jesus -- here we go again."

And indeed they do.

But what is the point that author Romulus Linney is trying to make? He carefully avoides the expected one of denouncing the sect, which is shown to be successful in providing solace for its congregation.

In fact, the all-encompassing love it provides is a bit suspicious. Snakehandling is based on a literal reading from the Bible, and, without knowing the church rules, it is hard to imagine its adherents otherwise so easy-going and tolerant as to skip the parts of the Bible with sexual strictures.

What we really seem to have here is a good old modern encounter group, where everyone tells everything and everyone else beams acceptance and love on it all. The play shows this approach to be beneficial for the characters.

But it sure doesn't do much for the audience, who cheered when the heroine kissed everyone goodbye and announced that she thought getting a job in town might help her more.