Sam Shepard has written so many Midwestern family plays that we think we know what this one is about. Most often he shows us the world through the eyes of the displaced son undergoing a troubled homecoming. But what happens when the son looks in the mirror and sees his father's face? Now well into his 60s, Shepard is ready to own the world in which he finds himself. The parental "Them" has finally become the generational "Us."
The God of Hell opens in familiar territory - a dairy farm in Wisconsin - but the ground quickly shifts. Emma, played by Jen Klika with deadpan sincerity, and her husband Frank, played by Joseph Milan with the overalls and mobile mouth of a comic strip Buz Sawyer, aren't talking about cows.
They're discussing the man in the basement, an old friend of Frank's who seems to be on the run. He works for the government, they think, maybe in research or some kind of science. Frank doesn't like to pry. There's a hint of physical damage, perhaps torture. Frank and Emma chew on this outlandish and disturbing possibility with bovine calm. Facts that might disturb us in another setting become absurd here in the heartland, where, as Emma tells us, nothing ever happens.
All that is about to change. Enter Dan McElhaney as Welch, a man in a suit who appears to be peddling patriotism door-to-door. His attaché case is filled with the little flags and fireworks that prove you're proud to be an American. He calls Emma by name as he edges toward the basement door.
The play was written in the summer of 2004 and rushed into production at The New School in New York just before the presidential election. Shepard uses home invasion as a metaphor for the U.S. invasion of Iraq and for the fascism that has taken over our government. Director Christopher Johnston has assembled a near-perfect cast to navigate the absurdist non sequiturs of the opening and the ultimate terror of the final scene. Klika, Milan and John Busser as the fugitive Haynes have a simple humanity and a sense of timing that lets them turn on a dime from comedy to despair. Daniel McElhaney plays Welch - a role originated by the legendary Tim Roth - with a tad too much enthusiasm in the opening scenes. The role seems to call for a quieter presence, a more matter-of-fact and sinister form of evil. But as the terror grows, McElhaney comes into his own.
In a brief but intense 80 minutes, Shepard burns some disturbing images on our retinas, but the trouble with brutality onstage is that it ends up torturing the audience. The real terror lives not in the scenes that evoke Abu Ghraib but in Welch's final words to Emma: "You didn't think you were going to get a free ride on the back of democracy forever, did you? … What have you done to deserve such rampant freedom? Just lolling about here in the Wisconsin wilderness … scraping the cream off the countryside. Sooner or later, the price has to be paid."
That's something to think about, especially in an election year.
The God of Hell, Through August 23, BNC Sometimes in the Silence Theatre 224 Euclid Ave., 330.606.5317