Shepard tries to raise ‘Hell’

Magic Theatre kicks off new season with uneven play

The term nostalgia was originally coined by a medical student to describe “the pain a sick person feels because he wishes to return to his native land, and fears never to see it again.”

It was considered a serious illness, at near epidemic levels among soldiers during the late 17th century through the early 19th century, with some cases so severe, death ensued.

These days, the consequences of nostalgia are less severe. Rather, nostalgia has become a mini-cottage industry that sells everything from glossy coffee table books to furniture, even ideas.

And so it goes that Sam Shepard’s new play “The God of Hell,” which opens the Magic Theatre’s 40th season, also calls upon nostalgia to advance its weighty plot, thick with sardonic commentary on the country’s state of affairs, social injustice and other red-hot news items that have scorched headlines since 2001.

Shepard’s play hardly threatens to kill; instead, “The God of Hell” suffers from the weakness and trite ailments that those same afflicted soldiers reported having so many years ago.

Directed by Amy Glazer, the production starts out strong enough. Inside the quaint Wisconsin house of dairy farmers Emma and Frank, we are transported to a place evokingsimpler times. Emma (Anne Darragh) and husband Frank (John Flanagan) lead a life void of drama and, really, any kind of interference. Government is something they see on television. The world has never gone out to get them.

That is until a cunning salesman peddling patriotic paraphernalia named Welch (Michael Santo), who sports an uncanny resemblance to a certain political leader, foists himself and his agenda upon the unsuspecting couple.

This is where the stage direction is rather smart. Welch makes his dramatic entrance through Emma and Frank’s back door. His face is obscured by a half-drawn window shade, and our first glimpse of him is his hand only, thrust forward, clutching an American flag cookie.

The frenetic rapport that ensues between Welch and Emma, and eventually the other characters as they are drawn into the chaos, is superb. It agitates and immediately puts everyone on edge.

Shepard’s political points (civil liberties, genetics, torture, nuclear power) neatly unfold, and for a while, feel very relevant.

Somewhere during the last 20 minutes, however, “The God of Hell” quickly loses its edge.

The ensuing commentary becomes dreadfully heavy-handed, obvious and quite tedious. It almost takes on the same angst emblematic of playwright Eric Bogosian, instead of the searing bite that Shakespeare, Moliere and Caryl Churchill have wielded in their respective politically conscious works.

Here, the audience is made to feel naïve and pandered to, rather than empowered, and is spoon-fed its political issues and call to action.

Rather than give us something to take home and mull over, Shepard has taken a lot of shortcuts in order to pack his 70-minute production with a few years’ worth of the controversial news clippings.

His choice to set it in rural Wisconsin, while characteristic of most of Shepard plays, seems to suggest forlornness for better days, which everyone knows really never existed. It’s an illness to think so.

Stage review

When: Playing through Oct. 22

Where: Magic Theatre, Bldg. D, Fort Mason Center

Price: Tickets are $20-$36

Info: Call (415) 441-8001 or visit www.magictheatre.org

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