Birmingham Weekly July 17, 2008
by Glenny Brock
City Equity Theatre takes the next step
In the oh-so-Oklahoma atmosphere that has comprised Birmingham’s theatre scene during so much of recent memory, a minor Sam Shepard play is a major event. But the playwright’s cultural standing isn’t really what makes the City Equity Theatre production of The God of Hell noteworthy so much as the radioactive politics that permeate the script.
The show, which opens Thursday, July 17, at the Alabama School of Fine Arts, is the second Shepard outing for the company this summer, a follow-up to last month’s True West. No doubt the company’s founding directors, Jonathan Fuller and Alan Gardner, were conscious of the powerful, one-two punch effect these back-to-back productions would have. True West was an admirable warm-up. The God of Hell, under the direction of Marlene Johnson, is a clear triumph.
The play begins, as so many good stories do, with a ritual and a mystery. The ritual is the mundane morning routine of Frank and Emma, a couple of Midwestern farmers living in America’s dairyland (not to be confused, it is made clear, with America’s heartland). He is polishing his work boots before going out to feed his heifers and she’s watering and over watering a glut of houseplants. The mystery is what they should make of their unexpected houseguest, Craig Haynes, still asleep in the basement having arrived after an incomprehensible late-night phone call to Frank. The farmer tells his wife that all he could get out of his old friend Haynes, whom Emma has never met, was that “the bottom has fallen out,” and that Haynes needed a place to stay. Immediately. And indefinitely.
After relaying this information to his wife, Frank heads down to the field to feed the heifers. Emma is flutters through her kitchen, fixing bacon and coffee in anticipation of playing hostess to Haynes when another stranger arrives at the door. The man’s suit alone would make him an aberration in the flannel-and-denim farmhouse but his peculiar way of talking makes him nearly a menace. Plus, he’s hawking various patriotic wares – American flag cookies and stars-and-stripes banner and decal sets – and plying Emma with questions about her house. Specifically the basement. And more specifically, any guests who might be in the basement.
Defending her privacy, Emma denies having any guests and sends the stranger packing. She rings the massive cowbell on the porch to get Frank out of the field and back up to the farmhouse, in order to tell him about the troubling visit. His puzzled nonchalance has her edging toward furious but Haynes makes his entrance from the basement before the couple can resolve the argument. And Haynes, it turns out, is pretty peculiar himself, even absurdly so – a bolt of lightning shoots from him whenever he comes in direct contact with another living thing. It’s obvious that the unwelcome arrival of these two men is going to spoil the daily routines on the farm for a while. Maybe for good. Maybe for not good, not good at all.
Alan Litsey plays Frank, and it’s gesture above all that makes the Birmingham-Southern theatre professor a fine, beleaguered farmer: To understand how this man handles things, you need only watch how he handles things – palms massaging mink oil into his boots, nervous whole hands fondling his coffee cup, fingers gripping an attaché case that looks out of place in his grasp. Here is a man who has always kept his hands busy, but the way he clutches at things reveals a fear that’s unexpected from a farmer at the center of America.
Emma is played by the diminutive powerhouse Melissa Cox (notable for her outstanding work in Angels in America at Birmingham Festival Theatre in 2002-2003). In a show held together by tension, Cox extracts just enough comedy to keep the audience breathing, mining her lines for the kind of laughter you hear when someone is more relieved than amused. Her petite frame belies Emma’s life force but puts on view the character’s growing fear. Her interactions with these big but fragile men – the sinister stranger, the frightened houseguest and her own farmer husband – are exquisite and nerve-wracking. You find yourself rooting for her most of all.
Alan Gardner’s bulk and heft plays as a counterpoint to Cox: when the robust Haynes becomes a waif, triggered into mewling submission, it’s a shock. His expressive physicality is masterful. The fourth actor, Edwin Booth, is wonderfully cartoonish in his creepiness, playing his man of mystery as much like a game show host as a government agent.
The play has repeatedly been called a farce but the modern connotations of that word suggest a ribald lightness that is wholly absent here. That said, what comedy there is does call to mind the French root farcir: The word for forcemeat stuffing entered the dramatic lexicon in the 16th century to describe comic interludes “stuffed” into religious plays. The God of Hell is political, no doubt. The question of what torture is, is at the center of the play, and we get Emma’s answer early on:
“You don’t get tortured unless you know something or somebody thinks you know something.”
The title character never shows up on stage, at least not in his own mortal coil. Speaking privately to Frank, Haynes mentions the god of hell, whom the Romans called Pluto, after whom scientists named plutonium, “the most carcinogenic substance known to man.”
He describes what would happen if plutonium was released into the atmosphere.
“It causes mutations in the genes of reproductive cells,” Haynes says. “The eggs and the sperm. Major mutation. A kind of random compulsory genetic engineering that goes on and on and on and on… It definitely would affect your heifers. It would affect every heifer within 600 miles of here. It would penetrate the food chain and bio-accumulate thousands of times over, lasting generation after generation.”
Here, then, is the thing to fear — the drama that plays out on stage looks the skin of the bubble growing cloudy, dissolving before it bursts. Bound to pop at the sound of a bell ringing or a lie being told or the silence that follows either clamor.
At one point, Frank is trying to get a single straight answer out of Haynes, an explanation for his Haynes’ skittishness and ranting.
“Are we talking about a world situation or something personal, Graig?”
Graig responds, “What’s the difference?”
City Equity Theatre, in residence at the Alabama School of Fine Arts, presents The God of Hell by Sam Shepard. Show times are Thurs-Sat 8 p.m. and Sun 2:30 p.m., July 17-27. General admission $25; students $15; actors’ special $10. Call (205) 951-3029 or visit www.cityequitytheatre.com to purchase tickets online.