A tart slice of American absurdism, “The God of Hell” has Sam Shepard’s unmistakable, iconoclastic stamp all over it. The playwright places rural archetypes in isolation and then threatens their identity with outside forces, in this case, a secretive right-wing government intent on imposing rigid ideology disguised as patriotism and concern for national security. Sound familiar? Perhaps somewhat hastily hustled together to hit the boards during election season, the play trades knowingly in the current climate of fear. While its political satire is blunted by unsound plot logic, the vigorous staging and performances nonetheless make for dynamic theater.
Set in the American heartland of rural Wisconsin — and on the blue fringe of the red states — the play centers on the quintessential Shepard figures of a humble farmer and his wife, Frank and Emma. They are among the last holdouts in an area where independent dairy farmers are being pushed out of business.
“Wisconsin is the perfect getaway. Nothing ever happens here,” says Emma (J. Smith-Cameron), who fills her pleasantly uneventful days by overwatering her beloved plants.
But something unnerving and altogether unclear does happen when a mysterious government agent named Welch (Tim Roth) strides into the house as if he owns it, pushing American flag cookies and patriotic decor kits, and displaying a keen curiosity about the couple’s basement.
“When I’m feeding the heifers, time stands still for me. Nothing else exists,” says Frank (Randy Quaid), whose distraction leaves Emma to deal with the intruder alone. Welch’s main interest is revealed to be the no-less-enigmatic Haynes (Frank Wood), an old friend of Frank’s staying in the basement, who gives off flashes of static electricity whenever he’s touched.
The major weakness in an otherwise excellent cast is Roth, whose unctuous character is more like Paul Lynde than Paul Wolfowitz. While Welch might have been effective as a sneakily insidious force, Roth plays him as overtly, mustache-twirlingly sinister, bouncing around on the balls of his feet like some kind of malevolent, mocking gameshow host. And given that the actor has convincingly played an American countless times, the use of his native British accent here makes no plot sense.
That lack of sense afflicts the play on various levels as the action progresses, opening its doors to borderline narrative anarchy. Shepard cooks up a nightmarish scenario that touches cryptically on environmental disasters, corporatization of farming and political coercion. The playwright also throws in scenes of grotesque torture that explicitly reference Abu Ghraib. But while it’s never uninvolving, the plot simply doesn’t withstand dissection.
Along with Lou Jacob’s propulsive direction, Shepard’s craftsmanlike structural hand and his golden touch with pared-down dialogue keep the action lively and intriguing even as its logic gets derailed. With some further fine-tuning, there could be a biting political play in this dark comedy.
As it stands, its imperfections are considerably muffled by the accomplished actors. While he disappears for far too much of the action, Quaid enlivens his every moment onstage as a simple, straightforward man with his hulking presence and endearingly awkward physicality.
Sporting a flawless Wisconsin accent, Smith-Cameron puts her own alert, amusing spin on a typically stoic rural Midwesterner. As chipper when talking about snowmobile accident beheadings or stains on the couch from prematurely delivered calves as she is when discussing the weather, Emma’s growing alarm is palpable beneath the mildness of exclamations like “Jeepers!” and “Criminy!”
Wood’s jumpy character is the most perplexing, but the actor strikes the right balance between paranoia and furtive cunning.
David Korins’ set warmly evokes faded farmhouse hominess, while David Lander’s lighting takes on more sickly, shadowy tones as Frank and Emma gradually lose all control over their lives. Sound designer and original composer Lindsay Jones’ dulcet, minor-key country compositions — played on the hurdy-gurdy, hardanger fiddle, harmonium and bass — punctuate the action over its three consecutive days.