Devil in the heartland
Blue Room sinks teeth into Sam Shepard’s dark comedy
Chico, CA 95928
A head full of curlers. A house dress. Denim overalls. Mink oil on work boots. “Home Sweet Home” over the front door. The smell of bacon cooking. Life is simple on a family-run Wisconsin dairy farm, and for the Blue Room’s production of Sam Shepard’s dark comedy The God of Hell, it has kept the set, and the setup, perfectly simple.
The downtown theater opens Shepard’s story inside the farmhouse of Frank and Emma (Zeda Samuel and Samantha Perry), a dairy-farming husband and wife. Emma waters her many plants and fixes breakfast. Frank oils his boots then heads out to feed his heifers.
Almost immediately, however, there are complications in the form of two different visitors, and their corruptive influence stains the canvas of the unadorned scene on contact.
One visitor is Mr. Haynes (played by Loki Miller), an estranged friend of Frank’s who has shown up out of the blue needing a place to stay.
The other is Welch (Benjamin Allen), a mysterious and manipulative government man who knocks at the front door with an American flag cookie in hand, then barges in and starts asking lots of questions and pontificating wildly about a war that’s being waged and how they need to be on the “right side” of the program.
Haynes is a scientist who is running away from a secret (and has been poisoned, literally, by it), and the patriotic Welch has come out to the country not only to bring Haynes back to the program, but also to bring the program, and the poison, out to the country. He hangs American flags everywhere, speaks obtusely and manipulates everyone in the room with his rhetoric: “You didn’t think you were going to get a free ride on the back of democracy forever, did you?” he says to Emma.
By the end of the final act things have gone crazy—like bat-shit crazy—and Welch navigates the scene justifying every perversion, cajoling the brainwashed Haynes and shell-shocked Frank to just step in line, no matter what empty promise or blatant torture is being trotted out.
Shepard wrote the play in response to what he saw as the divisive policies of the George W. Bush administration in the aftermath of 9/11, and intended it to be an arrow shot at the Republicans preceding the 2004 election. Questions about the administration’s motivations and the hollow patriotism used to manipulate support for its efforts are all here. And everyone—the politician, the elite and the working class—is poisoned by the confusing system at work.
Allen and Miller are listed as co-directors, but the program says the production was a collaboration among all four cast members. And in all of their capacities they’ve done really great work here. They chose a timely, fun, absurd script that’s been absorbed and presented with enough clarity of vision to lead to the right decisions, and delivered by a committed veteran cast with enough loose energy to make it breathe.
Allen is particularly fun as the slimy, grinning, conniving Welch, and Perry turns in a dynamic performance as Emma, at turns charming and hilarious as the dizzying circus plays out around her.
And the set built by Winston Colgan and Mark McGinnis (and decorated by Brown Design) was very impressive. Taking up nearly the entire surface of the theater’s floor was a fully built cross-section of the inside of a farmhouse, including living room, dining room and kitchen. The sink’s faucet and the gas stove were actually fully operational. That bacon in the beginning was really cooking, and it saturated the theater with that most recognizable homey scent.
This is what the Blue Room does best. A really fun night of theater.