Reviewed by Judy Richter
It's only fitting that the Magic Theatre should begin its 40th season with Sam Shepard's newest play, "The God of Hell," for Shepard has been closely associated with the San Francisco company for many years and was its playwright in residence from 1975 to 1983. His 1979 Pulitzer Prize-winning "Buried Child" premiered there.
Written in 2004, "The God of Hell" is said to be Shepard's response to George W. Bush's presidency. "The sides are being divided now. It's very obvious," Shepard said in a Nov. 12, 2004, interview in the Village Voice. "So if you're on the other side of the fence, you're suddenly anti-American ... Democracy's a very fragile thing. You have to take care of democracy. As soon as you stop being responsible to it and allow it to turn into scare tactics, it's no longer democracy, is it? It's something else. It may be an inch away from totalitarianism," he said.
Although it's never clear exactly what's going on in "The God of Hell," it clearly refers to some of the issues that have arisen since 9/11 and during the Bush presidency. It's set on a family-owned dairy farm in Wisconsin in the winter. In true Shepard style, it's something of a kitchen-sink drama, complete with working sink and stove (set by Erik Flatmo with lighting by Kurt Landisman and sound by Don Seaver), and augmented by a living room with well-worn furniture.
At first it seems as if nothing is amiss as Emma (Anne Darragh) bustles about in her bathrobe (costumes by Fumiko Bielefeldt), starts preparing breakfast and waters her houseplants. Her husband, Frank (John Flanagan), wearing his work clothes, oils his boots and gets ready to feed his heifers. However, it quickly becomes apparent that all is not routine. During the night, an old friend of Frank has arrived from Colorado, saying he needed to get away for a while. Emma is curious about their guest, who's still asleep in the basement, but Frank isn't very forthcoming perhaps because he isn't very curious. In fact, the audience never learns how, when and where Frank and the guest became friends.
After Frank leaves to tend to the cattle, a fast-talking stranger, Welch (Michael Santo), comes in the back door, offers Emma a cookie with an American flag on it and makes himself at home. Carrying a briefcase full of flag-themed paraphernalia, Welch appears to be an irrepressible, cheerful salesman, complete with a sharp haircut, nicely tailored suit, cowboy boots, Texas twang and an American flag pin in his lapel. However, his conversation hints at darker motivations, especially when he asks how many rooms the house has and if anyone is in the basement. After he leaves, Emma awakens her house guest, Greg Haynes (Jackson Davis), who gives off major static shocks when Emma touches him and who is extremely concerned about Welch.
Menace and mystery intensify during the 75-minute, intermissionless play. Greg apparently has some connection with RockyButtes, Colo., a fictional reference to Rocky Flats, Colo., where a closed U.S. nuclear weapons plant could still pose a danger. Welch apparently has some connection with undercover government operations that resort to torture to ferret out perceived security risks. At one point, he leads Greg from the basement with an electrical wire attached to Greg and a black hood over Greg's head a la Abu Ghraib. Welch seems to demand mindless conformity to his credo and pulls Frank into his fold along with Greg. Only Emma escapes the worst of his tactics, perhaps because she constantly questions what's going on and expresses horror at it. How long she will remain free from him is questionable, though.
The four actors chosen by director Amy Glazer seem perfectly cast for their roles, and she guides them carefully as the tension, fear and mystery build. Santo's Welch seems only annoying at first, but the dangers he poses become more and more apparent. Flanagan's Frank is a seemingly simple, accepting man who wants nothing more than to care for his cattle. As Greg, Davis embodies fear and paranoia, while Darragh is instinctively aware of the menaces that have entered her home without knowing exactly what they are but having the gumption to resist them.
Despite the unknowns, Shepard has written a chilling commentary on today's headlines. At one point, Welch says, "We can do whatever we want. ... We're in absolute command now." The flag is merely camouflage as he runs roughshod over three people's rights -- the Constitution be damned.