Friday, June 17, 2016

God of Hell: Tough Political Tale from OTR

Sam Shepard's "The God of Hell" has the political subtlety of a bullhorn at a Donald Trump rally in Texas.

This 2004 play, written during the darkest days of the Bush II Administration when torture and the Patriot Act were accepted government policy, is being presented by Off the Rails Theatre (OTR) at Community High School through through the next two weekends. It is worth your 72 minutes to absorb its horror, but don't expected to be pleased.

Government by totalitarian regimes is rarely less than threatening to Americans.

"The God of Hell," tightly directed by Patrick Kennerly, is the story of Wisconsin dairy farmers Emma (Maryjean Levin) and Frank (Robert Smith) who receive a visit from Haynes, a longtime friend of Frank's (De'Shawn Riley), who has a secret. His visit is followed shortly by that of a "government man," the menacing Welch (Owen Merritt).

This one develops slowly and there are periods when I was wondering what the hell they were getting at, but in the last 30 minutes, we know that they are getting at us--a nation that has fallen under their spell of right wing control. It's not pretty.

Merritt, who can be annoying with his pitch-precise diction and his shrill delivery upon occasion, nails the dark Welch. At one point, Margie (my gal) said, "I hate him" and I didn't have to ask why. It was because Merritt had become the character.

Veteran Maryjean Levin is solid as the midwest housewife who is bewildered by it all and Robert Smith plays a clueless Frank, caught up in feeding his heifers. De'Shawn Riley, who recently shown in "Rent" with Showtimers, had his moments as Haynes.

Let me caution you that this play is overtly political and the right is shown as an evil fascist regime, hell bent on re-forming America. If that is your politics, you might want to opt for "Little Miss Sunshine" because this one won't do at all.


  1. Thank you, Dan Smith, for taking the time to see our production of Sam Shepard's rarely performed satire and for your sharp review of the play and our efforts at Off The Rails Theatre.

    It is our hope -- at least it is my hope, as the director -- that we do attract some folks who are of a conservative political mindset. We don't just want to "preach to the choir" with THE GOD OF HELL. Political conservative, Sean Neff, graciously provided our production of Mr. Shepard's play with his skillful photography (viewable on our OTR Facebook page). Sean is a longtime member of the Republican Party and, in his steadfast commitment to the politics of "the right wing," spent a good deal of time with me in serious conversation, both in person and online, prior to photographing our production. Our conversation was intense, heartfelt and was filled with insight and enlightenment for both of us.

    Sean wrote this when he posted his amazing photos on OTR's Facebook page: "I'll be honest here -- after reading some of the playwright's comments about his work, I was concerned that this was going to be a political harangue. The play itself, however, is less partisan than the playwright, and director Patrick Kennerly and the cast are giving the audience something intense and provocative.
    If you care about the relationship between the individual and the government, this play will give you something to think about. Parts of it aren't easy to watch, but it's well worth going to see."

    Sean and I do not politically see eye-to-eye by any means, but we both believe in the positive potential of humanity and in human rights. And, we both agree that the apparent, "presumptive" Republican Presidential candidate, Donald Trump, is not good for "the right, the left, America, or our fragile World."

    So, Dan, I wish you'd invite local conservatives to risk 72 minutes and fifteen bucks on our production of THE GOD OF HELL. You may be able to do more good for "Right-leaning" Roanokers than you might imagine!


    1. Patrick: I would love it if my conservative friends would see this, but I find that if I urge them to take in something from a liberal slant, they resist. So, I told them not to. Maybe they will show up just to spite me.

  2. I am a political conservative/libertarian and a supporter of local theatre. Sometimes, these two things can be hard to reconcile, as was the case with "The God of Hell." I know most of my friends in the local theatre community differ from me politically, and I know some plays have strong liberal themes. As Mr. Kennerly wrote above, he and I discussed this before I came to take publicity pictures of one of the rehearsals.

    Yes, this play is political, and the playwright's intent is clearly to aim his fire at the post-9/11 American right. And as Mr. Casey says, it's not subtle. Still, I don't regret watching it or assisting in the production.

    Why? First of all, I think it does all of us good to have our politics challenged. Mr. Shepard's play isn't really nuanced enough, in my opinion, to be an effective critique of the Bush administration's anti-terror policies, but it does raise issues about the extent of government power and its use. Second, I think the play should make liberals think about their own beliefs. The character Welch is a man "from the government" who just won't go away. Frank and Emma simply want to be left alone. Remind me again which American political movement spends a lot of time talking about limited government, and which one usually favors increased regulation and centralized power...

    At one point in the play, Welch says something along the lines of how he has the authority to "do whatever he wants" (I don't remember the exact quote now.) I wonder, how many liberals will reflect on that and consider the current administration's claims to have the power to kill American citizens via drone strikes or to bypass Congress and create new laws by executive order?

    In general, I think Off the Rails Theatre tried to make this play into a critique of authority, patriotism, and power in America. I'm not sure they succeeded, but I'll give them credit for trying. The only specifically partisan reference I saw was the portrait of President Reagan in Welch's briefcase, a choice which seems gratuitous and somewhat dated if you've got sharp enough eyes to notice it.

    As Mr. Kennerly noted, at worst you'll spend fifteen bucks and 72 minutes watching something you disagree with. Even so, you'll see some excellent actors at work, and you'll be supporting the group that has brought shows like Doubt, Proof, and Waiting for Godot to the Roanoke theatre scene.

  3. Sean: You've said quite a bit here, some of which is not correct. First, I am not Dan Casey. I am Dan Smith. The two of us are friends, but we are not one. Second, the "do whatever we want" quote is not from liberals; it is Dick Cheney's reaction to being in power by a slight margin. Conservatives "spend a lot of time talking about limited government," but a lot more time making government more intrusive (killing voting rights), more invasive (women's bodies for example), more expensive (Bush's two wars), more unfair to the voters (gerrymandering) and--in general--for sale to the highest bidder. I will agree that our oligarchy is in need of an overhaul and I will also agree that it is not all the fault of the Republican Party, but most of it is. The Democrats have never even considered nominating Donald Trump as its presidential candidate. Happy for your delight in theater.