by Michael Bowen
When I first saw Steven Dietz's God's Country, I wondered why he had written it as a play for the stage. With several dozen characters, staccato scenes, quick cuts, long swatches of newspaper accounts and courtroom transcripts, the material would seem to work much better as a documentary or nonfiction book.
The play has three narrative strands. They concern the 1980s white supremacist group known as the Order; the last months in the life of Alan Berg, an abrasive Denver talk-radio jock who was assassinated by members of the Order; and the courtroom revelations of the group's demented views on race, law and religion.
It's billed as a docudrama -- which means that quite often the actors don't show us events or dramatize them, instead telling us the narrative or describing the action. That much show-and-tell can seem static, even counter-theatrical.
Diana Trotter's production at Whitworth College, however, brings alive the reasons that the playwright wrote a drama to be acted onstage and not a bestseller to be read privately or, worse, a TV movie-of-the-week. After all, there's something disturbing about being in the same room with three men screaming racist hate and dressed in red, white and blue Klan robes. Trotter's direction repeatedly enhances the action. For example, at one point, as "America the Beautiful" booms on the soundtrack, each actor takes an accusing step forward as the ensemble recites the names of dozens of racist organizations in our beautiful America. As the names accumulate, the list grows more frightening. It's as if we're being confronted, here and now, by a flood of organizations dedicated to the orchestration of hate.
Trotter frequently shines an accusatory spotlight in our faces -- quite literally -- as if to remind us that racism can be homegrown. Race-warriors dressed in camo hustle their machine guns down the aisles: fanatical violence emerges from among us, not only from faraway lands.
The production capitalizes on the power of ritual. When a half-dozen men in military fatigues light candles, then place an "infant" on an altar and pledge to defend it against the non-white races, the effect is chilling -- especially so because it's happening in the same room where we're sitting and not up on some TV screen.
There was a delayed smattering of applause at the Act One curtain, as if the audience was not quite sure if it should express approval of anything, at least not while there's an actual burning cross up onstage. Then an uncomfortable silence. There were walkouts at intermission. Not an entirely bad sign: if they're squirming in their seats, somebody's complaisance is being bruised.
Dietz is not simply raging against bigotry; he understands its sources, too. There's an effective scene in which a farmer recounts his gratitude for neighbors who suddenly appeared, well armed, to defend his farm against foreclosure. While the man is grateful, he also realizes that he has turned a corner by aligning his family with the Christian Identity movement. We come to understand how such hatred is hatched in poverty and expressed in destructiveness.
The musical slide-show transitions -- everything from patriotic hymns to U2 to Tracy Chapman -- were mostly effective, and someone deserves credit for digging up so many startling images of racists at work in the USA. Still, a couple of the early montage sequences were obviously being used to cover backstage costume changes and slowed the pace noticeably.
The Whitworth actors often needlessly step on lines that emphasize how real the racist ugliness is, and how close: the script is peppered with references to Pacific Northwest locales, to Seattle, Sandpoint, and Cheney, to Fred Meyer and a porn shop in Spokane. The litany is startling in itself, without any meaningful glances directed to the auditorium.
There's the occasional self-conscious college-level acting. In one monologue, a father is incredulous that his son has turned into an Aryan extremist. The irony (the father himself spews racist epithets) and the details (the son has stockpiled weapons next to a little shrine to Hitler) are enough to communicate shock and sadness; no need to emote, take long pauses, and emote some more.
While there were missed opportunities for humor (an uncooperative witness, a bigot-housewife fretting over her poor trampled cornflowers), on occasion the actors grasp for humor obtrusively. An interview of two elderly "conspiratologists" was unwisely played for laughs. Their ideas may be wacky, but they don't think so. The focus should be on the idiocy of their paranoia and the interviewer's skepticism, not on the mugging of the actors.
In this ensemble piece, however, two of the dozen actors stand out. As Alan Berg, the Jewish liberal on the airwaves, Damian Westfall convinces us that he's a growly middle-aged guy with a paunch and plenty of invective for right-wing crackpots. As Robert Jay Mathews, the Order's leader, Josh Nellesen typifies the Aryan banality of evil. Nellesen shines especially in another role as a frantic punk-rock skinhead who gambols about the stage like a chimpanzee, cheerleading for bigots -- amusing, almost, until we hear the details of how he murdered a defector.
The Order's 1983-84 crime spree, the biggest loot-grab in our nation's history, started right here with a burglary in Spokane. Terrorists don't always have Middle Eastern faces. Sometimes they live down the street, full of what Yeats calls "passionate intensity." Whitworth's production captures much of that intensity. In its final performances this Friday and Saturday, it's worth contemplating the depths of race hatred in God's Country.