Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

A Savage Production of Sam Shepard's
The God of Hell

Also see Richard's reviews of The Ride Down Mount Morgan and Footloose

Anne Darragh and John Flanagan
The Magic Theatre opens its 40th season with a savage production of Sam Shepard's 2004 play The God of Hell. The playwright rushed this play into a low budget production at New York's Actors Studio Drama School Theatre so it could debut before the November 2004 election. He had hoped the play would influence the public on "Republican fascism." As Chris Smith, the artistic director of the Magic, says, "This is a comedy of menace rooted in naturalism but also embracing the absurd." It is a visibly partisan play written with great zeal and full of symbolism relating to the current political climate.

Shepard's dark farce is set in an isolated Wisconsin dairy farm in mid-winter. Emma (Anne Darragh) and Frank (John Flanagan), a childless couple, run the only working farm in the area since the neighboring farms are receiving grants from the government not to work their farms. Emma is happy with their lives as independent dairy farmers. She says, "Wisconsin is the perfect place. Nothing ever happens here." As for Frank, "when I'm feeding my heifers, time stands still for me. Nothing else exists." They feel it is, as Candide would say, "the best of all possible worlds."

The first sign of trouble is when the couple takes in Frank's old friend Hanes (Jackson Davis), who has escaped from a mysterious place called Rocky Flats. (This place actually insisted during the 1950s, 15 miles northwest of Denver. It was a large scale nuclear weapon production facility for the production of plutonium.) Haines has to keep a low profile since he discharges an enormous amount of static electricity whenever he touches anyone.

An unexpected visitor comes knocking on the door of the isolated farmhouse. An overly friendly "salesman" of patriotic paraphernalia named Welch (Michael Santo) tries to browbeat Emma into buying the bits and pieces. However, he has a more sinister motive.

Director Amy Glazer has assembled four skillful, veteran actors for this taut 70-minute comedy-drama. The menace is very explicit when the "salesman" comes barging into the kitchen of the dairy farmers. The play explodes at the end, persuasive in its dreadfulness and unusual moralizing.

Ann Darragh (The Sweetest Swing in Baseball, Sex Habits of American Women) gives a superb performance as Emma, sympathetic yet entertaining as she obsessively over-waters her plants. She is disturbed by the stranger but is the voice of reason in this farce.

John Flanagan (Blue Surge, Summertime, A Common Vision) gives a solid performance as the happy independent dairy farmer. Michael Santo (The Price at the Aurora and Tally's Folly at Pasadena Playhouse) has the showiest role as the menacing government man. The actor runs with it and makes the character a hyper-intimidating monster. Jackson Davis (many productions at TheatreWorks and Magic) is excellent as the runaway Haines. He gives a bravura performance as he evokes his comic skills when playing the nervous mystery man. He shows a dreadfully human openness when trying to describe what plutonium can do to humans and animals.

Erik Flatmo has designed a homey set of a farmer's kitchen in "America's Dairyland." Costumes by Fumiko Bielefeldt are suitable to the characters. Emma walks around in a worn terry cloth robe while Frank wears soiled coveralls with work boots. Kurt Landisman's lighting is exceptional, and it sputters and flairs violently to life. Amy Glazer and cast are able to capture the extreme humor of the piece.

The God of Hell runs through October 22nd at the Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason Center, San Francisco. For tickets call 415-441-8822 or visit

The next production will be Elaine May and Jan Mirochek's short plays Moving Right Along starring Marlo Thomas, opening on October 21st and running through November 18.

Photo: Nick Shoob

Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema

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