In Sam Shepard's theatrical world the mundane safety of domestic life is surrounded by an external world that is always threatening and potentially lethal. Most often, the inhabitants of that dwelling soon discover that they are not so safe with each other, either. Fear, deception, moral compromise, mis-perceptions and inadequate communication characterize the relationships in most of Shepard's work. Those qualities also describe his view of the Bush political regime, and the nature of governmental intrusion for the Wisconsin dairy farm couple, Frank and Emma, and their two uninvited guests in "The God of Hell".
This play, written in hopes of influencing the 2004 Presidential election, is really a kind of farcical agitprop, blatantly mocking the paranoid excesses of the Bush Whitehouse with a story that is intermittently funny, frightening, ridiculous and relevant. Using theatrical gestures so extreme they sometimes create more caricature than character, it still retains Shepard's gift for achieving the visceral out of absurdity.
In this moderately well-performed production by The New Stage in Shoreline, director Chris Fisher keeps the 80 minute performance entertaining and compelling, but doesn't quite achieve the sobriety, intensity or danger implicit in the script. As a result, one comes out of the performance not knowing exactly how to feel about it, whether it was simply an amusement preaching to the choir (since it is anything but politically balanced) or a cautionary fable meant to invoke some degree of fear and pity. Much of the problem is in the play itself, which is more like an impassioned placard than an organic drama, but some of the problems are also in the performances.
The farm couple is very solid, with Kara Whitney creating an entirely consistent and believable character in the role of Emma. She had just the right quality of plainness for a woman who has lived her entire life on a rural dairy farm, and "likes it just fine." More importantly, she always felt grounded and authentic, as naturally raised in this life as a stalk of corn. That's critically important when everyone else in the play undergoes such profound change, especially her husband, Frank. I also appreciated the way she made the well-designed and decorated set (Katy Higgins) feel like the place where she really lived, everything just where she puts it, each plant her personal charge. Her idiosyncrasy of compulsively over-watering them, while funny, was also just right, just the sort of thing this over-nurturing woman would do.
Her husband, Frank, is equally compulsive about caring for his heifers, and David Ledingham brings a masculine strength, a reality of physical labor, to the dairy-farmer that is particularly effective when he is converted into something slightly demonic by the play's end. His performance had the strongest sense of the political, personal, soul-threatening danger presented by the government agent, Welch, and in the most investment in protecting his fugitive "old friend" Haynes. The problem is that the external threat presented by Welch and Haynes needed to be as expressive and palpable as the response of Frank. It wasn't.
When Welch (Jason Adkins) intrudes into Emma's home he brings with him a briefcase filled with patriotic paraphernalia and kitsch. Overly-groomed in a slick, corporate way, he has the unctuous, unwelcome familiarity of a traveling salesman, which he is really, except that the buyers cannot decline his offer. When he pulls out American flag streamers, a flag-patterned tablecloth, small Statue of Liberty ornaments and a portable neon call-to-patriotism it's all quite funny. Only when it becomes clear that his pitch is really a demand, his presence a threat, his autonomy no more than a manifestation of his ideological possession do we realize we should have felt something else. That streamer of red, white and blue should have been as chilling as a row of swastikas. We should have known that the flag-frosted cookie he offers Emma was a kind of sweet poison. There should have been real pain apparent just below the surface of this joke d_cor.
That pain is most realized in Haynes, a "researcher" who has been staying in the basement, on the run from a job at a top-secret military facility called Rocky Buttes. The mention of that name causes physical pain, and something that happened there left Haynes with a powerful electrical charge whenever he touches someone. Welch is here to get him back, literally towing him away by his genitals. The government goes after every man by the balls, Shepard says none too subtly. As played by Geoff Finney, Haynes was just too weak, less a strong man broken than a weak man weakened. Nor did I really believe this man had ever had a position important enough for the government to come after him. Had Welch been more insidious and Haynes been more resistant, the drama would have felt more like a mortal conflict and less like a Punch and Judy show.
"The God of Hell" is certainly not Sam Shepard at his best, but it does have much of his characteristic strength: the insight into ordinary American character, the broken, inept quality of our conversation, the theatrical inventiveness that makes anything realistic potentially fantastic, the social fear that always lies just below our brutality. This production may not entirely succeed, but The New Stage is to be commended for taking on a political drama with both immediate relevance and a continuous theme in our struggle to be a free people. As Emma poignantly asks at one point, "Our government. What does that even mean anymore - our government?" This play doesn't give us an answer, but it reminds us how important it is to raise the question.