God's Country | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Arts & Culture » Performing Arts Review

God's Country





"Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world," wrote William Butler Yeats in a poem quoted in Steven Dietz's God's Country. The striking thing about the anarchic impulses depicted in this fact-based play is how actually mere they are, in two senses of the word: how absolute—how intractable in their paranoid illogic—and how bare, how petty. The rhetoric of Dietz's would-be white warriors of Christ is even more chilling than their actions; while by no means insignificant, the murder, robbery, counterfeiting, and racial harassment with which they are associated are nothing compared to the genocidal apocalypse they advocate.

What makes seemingly everyday, normal people take part in underground groups like the Order and the White Aryan Resistance? What sets the Joe and Jane Six-Packs shown in Dietz's play, with their secret obeisance to burning crosses and larger-than-life pictures of Hitler, apart from other disgruntled folks who grumble about civil rights quotas and the assholes in Washington but don't wind up sending letter bombs, vandalizing synagogues, or mowing down snotty radio-talk-show hosts?

In the trial of a band of white supremacists for racketeering (one of several real events that anchor Dietz's script), a prosecuting attorney quotes an American hostage whose plane was hijacked by Arabs: "They were a band of thieves, thugs, and murderers who justified their deeds with vows of religious fervor." And, she declares, that description applies as well to the white supremacists. Is she right? Their actions were, indeed, those of mere thugs; but their words hark back to the elevated, mythically inclined catechisms of medieval knights and ancient conquerors. And what of their thoughts?

This is where Dietz's earnest play and Interplay's earnest production fall short. Though by no means a failure, and though justifiably concerned with the grim reality of these terrorists and their still-living (though lately less visible) movement, God's Country never offers a convincing psychological portrait of the people it puts center stage. When a man talks about rifle-toting white militants protecting his farm from seizure by the sheriff, or a woman recalls being confused about Lee Harvey Oswald when she was a child, their anecdotes don't guide the audience to an understanding of why they should succumb to the white-militant mentality while others with similar experiences don't.

The problem is mainly one of form. It's a problem familiar from an earlier Dietz play—Ten November, which had its world premiere in 1987 at Wisdom Bridge. (God's Country premiered in Seattle in 1988 and included in its cast Chicago actress Linda Emond.) Both plays eschew the traditional techniques of naturalistic docudrama to tell true stories (a Great Lakes shipping disaster in the earlier play), instead employing a collage style in which realistic scenes (set out of chronological order) are cinematically intercut with ritualistic tableaux, all enacted by an ensemble whose members each perform several different roles. The effect is potentially confusing, and David Perkovich's staging of God's Country, with a mostly non-Equity cast of 14, too often lives up to this potential.

The best moments in God's Country, as in Ten November, are the ritualistic ones: There's the haunting opening, in which a clan of neo-Nazis recites the Pledge of Allegiance by candlelight, standing before a giant American flag and under the leadership of a stern-faced little boy (now that's desecration). Or the trio of women holding flashlights, softly chanting the names of dead children (they're taking down names to be used for false identification papers). Or the first act's gripping climax, a ceremony of indoctrination into the mysteries of white brotherhood led by a preacher, while an Aryan man, woman, and child pose heroically stripped and holding swords of righteousness. In these scenes, we can glimpse the powerful attraction of such rituals; it's to Perkovich's credit that in staging these tableaux he has let their symbolic beauty stand on its own without adding the disapproving comment some directors might feel was needed to distance themselves.

But the common lives of these people remain elusive. Perkovich's solid cast simply never make their characters very interesting; perhaps in order to remind us of the seriousness of the circumstances being shown, the show is woefully short on humor. The script is filled with intriguing little absurdities: the story of a man who surrendered to FBI agents after being shocked to see they were all white men; a theory that Aristotle Onassis planned the murder of John F. Kennedy and fabricated Anne Frank's diary; the ironic case of a student leader who, after disavowing the white Christian supremacist movement, was crucified by his former followers. Such bizarre material, horrifying as it is, also has its comic side; but the production's studiously solemn tone discourages any laughter, though laughter can be a vital element in the way human beings comprehend events.

Too often, God's Country fails to make a human connection in its flow of words—claims, accusations, proclamations, confessions, and prayers—which Dietz seems to have drawn in large part from such public sources as court transcripts, interviews, and propaganda tracts. Those words are instructive, to be sure: generic statements that could have come from extremists of any race or political camp, about freedom of speech and political trials and the glory of a brave death in the "secret war" with "the regime in Washington," as well as more ideologically specific rantings against Jews or about the Bible being "the family history of the white race." Such absurdities are worth keeping in mind in light of actual events: onetime Klan leader David Duke winning 60 percent of the white vote in his Louisiana senate race, for instance, or racial harassment at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Dietz's main accomplishment in writing God's Country has been to accumulate material few people are aware of; Interplay's generally competent if only intermittently compelling production also serves a purpose that's more educational than artistic.

Support Independent Chicago Journalism: Join the Reader Revolution

We speak Chicago to Chicagoans, but we couldn’t do it without your help. Every dollar you give helps us continue to explore and report on the diverse happenings of our city. Our reporters scour Chicago in search of what’s new, what’s now, and what’s next. Stay connected to our city’s pulse by joining the Reader Revolution.

Are you in?

  Reader Revolutionary $35/month →  
  Rabble Rouser $25/month →  
  Reader Radical $15/month →  
  Reader Rebel  $5/month  → 

Not ready to commit? Send us what you can!

 One-time donation  →