Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

Exceptional Cast for the Potent Drama
The People's Temple

Also see Richard's reviews of Blue/Orange and Kimberly Akimbo

John McAdams, James Carpenter and Barbara Pitts
Berkeley Repertory Theatre in conjunction with Z Space Studio are presenting the world premiere of The People's Temple, a theatrical exploration of the roots, the rise and the tragic demise in Jonestown, Guyana of the movement led by the Reverend Jim Jones. This almost three-hour production strikes a poignant note since most of the events leading up to the suicides started here in San Francisco.

Leigh Fondakowski (director and head writer) along with Greg Pierotti, Stephen Wangh and Margo Hall have produced a powerful drama based on documents and interviews with survivors and relatives of those who died in this tragic event. This production joins the ranks of past distinguished docudramas including Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, The Laramie Project and Guantanamo. However, The People's Temple is much too long and many scenes become redundant. The heavy drama could be cut to approximate two hours and thirty minutes, especially some of the scenes involving the early days of Reverend Jones in Illinois. Also, some of the stories of the members become confusing as they jump from one character to another without smooth transitions. This piece does not have the excellent pacing of The Laramie Project and some of the characters are too caricature-like. The choral work of four pieces in the first act and three in the second act stop the flow of the heavy drama.

The People's Temple has been three years in the making. Many of the survivors would not open up until they could trust the interviewers. The original text comprised over 3000 pages and about five percent of this has reached the stage. The characters are not freaks or kooks, but idealistic revolutionaries who wanted a better world where everyone, every race, was equal. They truly believed they could make the world a better place.

People's Temple is told chronologically, with Jim Jones starting out as a charismatic preacher in a small Illinois town where it was claimed he was a faith healer. His Pentecostal congregation was forced to move west to a small town in Mendocino County in Northern California where he established a new community that attracted poor and black congregants. The speechifying by the Reverent Jones mixes Christianity with a utopia where blacks and whites would be equal. Prejudice did not exist and many of persons who are still living said it was the best time of their lives. As the drama continues we see how Jim Jones becomes an egomaniac and believes he is God. After an exposé in New West and the San Francisco Chronicle, Jim Jones convinces his flock along with their children to move to the jungles of Guyana.

We watch as the people arrive in this god forsaken jungle to clear out 3000 acres of growing vines and trees to start a new world. Many things happen to this group, including sexual acts that make the stomach turn. Many now want to get out of this utopia since it has become a "hell on earth." The long production concludes with the horrifying situation of US Representative Leo Ryan leading a fact-finding mission to the community and being killed in an ambush along with three other journalists. Jim Jones orders the death of over 900 men, women and children since the world will find out about this tragedy.

Twelve superb actors recreate all of the characters on a stage full of racks of hundreds of boxes, which could be a library. The actors move with formal reverence, recovering objects and clothing from the boxes for different characters' stories.

John McAdams (Laramie Project, Gross Indecency and New York actor) is magnetic as Jack Beam, one of the Temple's founding members, and later as the leader himself. He also plays the son Stephan as a quiet and philosophical person who does not like what his father is becoming.

James Carpenter gives a sincere and heart-tugging performance when reading about the deaths of his child and wife during the suicides at Jonestown. The whole cast gives superb performances, changing from one character to the next with split timing. Coleman Domingo (Henry V and Bright Ideas in New York) is exceptional as the African American who joins the cult since he has nothing to lose, while Greg Pierotti, Margo Hall and Kelli Simpkins are excellent reading gut-wrenching letters on the deaths in the jungle. Michael Braden, Velina Brown, Robert Earnst, Lauren Klein, Barbara Pitts and Adam Wade give effective performances as various characters.

The People's Temple runs through May 29 at Berkeley Rep's Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison Street, Berkeley. For tickets call 510-647-2949. The repertory's next production is Joanna Murray-Smith's Honour opening on May 20 and running through July 3rd.

Photo: David Allen

- Richard Connema

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