Reviewed by Jerry Kraft
"God's Country" is a biting and incisive docudrama about the rise and fall of a particularly venomous group of neo-Nazi, white supremacists active in the Pacific Northwest in the mid 1980's. It is taken primarily from trial transcripts, and has an objective, journalistic rhetorical tone that makes its pervasive hatred and intolerance all the more chilling. Playwright Steven Dietz allows these men to speak their own words, and allows us to draw our own conclusions. Simultaneously tracing an astonishingly large and successful crime spree with the murder of an outspoken Jewish radio talk-show host in Denver, it's a look inside a mean brotherhood of small, trapped animals striking out from their self-imposed corners. Written nearly twenty years ago, it remains sadly relevant and disturbingly immediate.
this crisp, passionate and sharply performed production, under the precise and
vigorous direction of Sheila Daniels, we are drawn close to people we would likely choose to
avoid, and gain some small understanding of their frightened, inadequate,
endangered sense of identity.
There are standout performances in this large, predominantly male cast, but this is truly an ensemble production. Nearly every actor plays multiple roles, and it is the social milieu within the group and among the attorneys who prosecute them that acts as the play's primary, multi-faceted lead character. To mention a few individuals is not to diminish the accomplishments of the others.
Parmenter was a member of the "Order", the organization at the center
of this story. He ultimately rejected their group beliefs to become one of the
key prosecution witnesses. Played by Chris MacDonald, this was a man who retrieved
some small piece of his integrity, and spoke out against a group that betrayed
both him and their own stated principles. With his clean-cut, professional
demeanor, he was also a subtle reminder that the face of evil is rarely that of
a monster, and more often the banal, everyday familiarity of those who surround
That connection with our own experience was also vivid in the powerful and intimate monologue delivered by Gordon Carpenter, as an anguished father who finds his son's basement room transformed into a racist shrine, accented by his own thoughtless and bigoted parental example. It was one of the few times when the pace slowed, and it really allowed us to appreciate the lingering pain of easy mistakes with terrible cost, and of how easily lives are corrupted and distorted. Likewise, the brutal scene where one of the "brotherhood" is beaten and literally crucified when he tries to leave the organization was powerful and awful, putting the real taste of blood on ideology. I was also very impressed by John Farrage as the talk-show host, Allan Berg. A provocateur and not especially nice man, his abrasive inability to suffer fools lightly marked another pole to the axis of intolerance on which all of this action exists.
All of the actors contributed to the creation of an inescapable mob, a subterranean world, an endangered refuge, an empire, a deteriorating clique and a phantom army. Sheila Daniels knows how to move an ensemble, and her orchestration of these many voices, the sounds and perspectives and competing ideas of this play, was pitch-perfect. In many ways, this is a play about belonging: belonging to an organization, to a society, to a race, to a family, to a religion, to an excluded and despised group, to a particular view of history and destiny, to a free society. The play is packed with so much factual content, both in terms of historical events and in personal relationships, that a very real danger is that it will simply become too dense and verbose. Daniels avoids that trap by moving things along at the speed of a Ping-Pong ball dropped into a room full of mousetraps. Nothing ever drags, and as a result there is a subliminal sense of momentum that carries the action with a kind of awful inevitability from start to finish.
One danger in this play is that it is, as with so many plays rooted in social conscience, preaching to the choir. I doubt that anyone will have their basic beliefs surrounding social and racial justice changed by anything in this play, but that may be beside the point. Men like this, by their very nature, live outside the usual arenas of public discourse, and only rarely have their unpleasant and unwelcome opinions heard in broader society. The play allows them full-voice, and without letting an editorially contrived context undermine the opinion even as it is being expressed. As a footnote, I was involved in a production of this play in Spokane several years ago, and on opening night the Reverend Butler, of the Aryan Nations compound in Hayden, Idaho, sent a couple of his "brownshirts" to stand outside the theatre and be seen. What is interesting is that they were not protesting the play. In fact, they felt it gave a fair and accurate representation of their beliefs.
I truly wish I could say that this show was about yesterday's news, and that its themes and characters and ideas are dated and irrelevant to our world today. That's hardly the case. Not so long as the killing fields of bigotry and hatred and ambition motivate those who would achieve power in order to oppress and subjugate others. We are still clearly living in God's Country - just listen to our President. And the same questions remain; who shall define and deliver the will of that God, and what sort of country will it be?