Perhaps it takes a playwright who reached his creative peak in the Reagan era to understand the darker aspects of our current Republican nightmare, but fortunately for us, Sam Shepard is back on form and Genesis West has got him. The God of Hell isn’t a full-size Shepard play like Buried Child, but it packs plenty of intensity into 90 minutes. Frank (Fred Lehto) and his wife Emma (Leslie Gangl Howe) have a dairy farm in Wisconsin, and the rural silence onstage when we first meet them is so thick you can touch it. Frank sits on the sofa, oiling his work boots, while behind him Emma compulsively overwaters the many houseplants. But all is not well in America’s dairy land, as we will soon discover. There’s an old friend of Frank’s, variously known as Greg or Haynes (Tom Hinshaw), who has arrived late at night and is holed up in the basement. He seems to be on the run, and when another suspicious fellow named Welch (Tony Miratti) barges in on Emma and starts asking all kinds of insinuating questions, that hunch is quickly confirmed.
The great strength of this production, which has been directed exquisitely by Maurice Lord, is that each of the four characters contributes so much to the whole. As Welch, Miratti incarnates the devil himself, or at least a contemporary, flag-waving version of the title’s god of hell, and he does so with a truly terrible virtuosity. Hinshaw as Haynes the fugitive has some profound dynamics to negotiate-from very anxious to very angry, and from sanely paranoid to deliriously brainwashed-yet he manages to keep the character wholly believable. And as Frank and Emma are called upon to witness some of the nastiest implications of recent American foreign policy right in the living room of their home, the empathy the two actors create is extraordinary. Gangl Howe in particular shows the kind of thoroughness and consistency in her portrayal of Emma that one associates with leading screen roles.
No review of The God of Hell would be complete without mentioning Michael Smith’s incredible lighting. Smith has worked some real magic here, and everyone interested in innovative stagecraft will want to see it.