Intense, ingenious and shocking, Steven Dietz's God's Country is also appallingly timely. After the Oklahoma bombing and all the recent press about so-called patriot militias, a powerful play about the murder of liberal Jewish radio talk-show host Alan Berg, along with a painful expose of the ideology behind that murder, takes the breath away.
We are first introduced to "The Order" via a courtroom drama--Denver Parmenter (played with vibrant distinction by Richard Nelson) is turning over his compatriots in exchange for leniency. He speaks clearly, confessing his own obsessions with the violent Order. But then the play leaps about in time as we hear from the various players, from the real author of all this chaos, Robert Jay Matthews, to an assortment of American fascists and their sick females to Alan Berg himself, perched high above the audience on a little balcony where his acerbic wit ticks off his radio audience--a "bleeding heart with an acid tongue."
The farmer about to lose his farm is protected by armed men willing to blow the sheriff's head off if he tries to foreclose. The farmer is sympathetic, the armed men all Robin Hoods. But what is behind their philanthropy? Hate. And the viciousness of that hate pours out of their mouths in the most realistic (and surrealistic) poison imaginable.
When Matthews speaks, he speaks as a prophet--as if he sees a vision of what life ought to be. At the bottom of that vision is "race pride" and, worse, the predatory self-interest that forms the basis of all the dogma. The bond among the "brothers" is hate for those outside the Order, especially for the Jews. Ruthlessness is the highest virtue and murder the fanatical solution to all their imagined woes. These men are on fire with purpose--like heroin addicts bent on the score.
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By now we have heard all of it before, but playwright Dietz vivifies the rhetoric by juxtaposition. His long, incredibly complex script doesn't daunt the excellent cast assembled for this regional premiere at the Denver Civic Theatre. There is no condescension to the performances; the actors choose a super-realistic style, and each sounds utterly convinced. No one treats his role ironically, trying to be the actor behind the man rather than the man himself. The ensemble acting is so terrific, it's hard to isolate only a few performances. Dan O'Neill's astonishing veracity as Matthews and his manic ferocity as a skinhead stay in the mind a long time. Rebeque Destro gives her roles as an attorney and, later, Alan's ex-wife, Judith, a dazzling complexity and presence. James Sullivan as a colonel, a defendant, a fanatic's father and a savage pastor singes nearly every word he speaks with some dark fire of his own. Christopher Briggs brings a powerful naturalism to each character he plays. And Doug Rosen is right on as Berg.
The play has only a few false notes. Two of the women give a couple of monologues that seem to be nightmares; they're irrelevant and detract from the force of the play. And a love scene between Matthews and his mistress distracts us from the ongoing dialogue among the other characters.
Director David M. Payne keeps the viewer's eye bouncing around the stage--there are so many actors on at once and so many ideas pouring out, his masterful orchestration of events and characters is one of the production's chief delights. The actors use every square inch of the theater's small space, and in the end you've been bombarded from a million directions.
All that white-knuckle intensity may be fatiguing, but it is also utterly riveting.