If disbelief is deadly to religions (for more on that, see "Martha Clarke's latest dance celebrates the complex legacy of the Shakers"), it's not a bit better for drama. That's one unfortunate takeaway from the Raleigh Ensemble Players production of God's Country, playwright Steven Dietz's tangled—and, too frequently, inert—history of the rise and fall of a white supremacist group during the 1980s in the American Northwest.
If Dietz's 1988 work qualifies as one of the earlier examples of modern documentary theater—predating the mature works of Anna Deavere Smith by five years and the contributions of Moises Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project by a decade—it also bends beneath issues that the genre had to wrestle with in its formative stages.
God's Country begins auspiciously enough. It establishes solid factual foundations via radio programs and court transcripts, restaging talk-show excerpts of interviews with white supremacists and portions of the 1985 federal trial against 10 members of a paramilitary group known as The Order. But Dietz's script repeatedly shifts gears without warning, between broadcast and courtroom scenes and a series of dramatic monologues—some hallucinatory, others not—through a transitional device so endlessly reiterated that it loses all dramatic effect.
True, individual monologues, including Chris Milner's deadpan recounting of a farmer suddenly "befriended" by white militia, have a visceral authority to them. But others, like a confused schoolgirl who mistakes her Sunday school teacher for Lee Harvey Oswald because they both have the same last name, are simply bewildering. A marked exception to the fictional excesses comes when Staci Sabarski recounts a dinner party where a host's insidious joke metastasizes across a weather map of the United States until the fallout pours down upon the guests.
Part of the difficulty God's Country faces involves the number of actors dividing the script's 43 roles. The confusion resulting from the fundamentally blurred profiles of white supremacists at the Order trial is only exacerbated when some of the defendants and unindicted co-conspirators wind up playing various defense attorneys as well. The actors onstage—some of Raleigh Ensemble Players' finest—are disadvantaged even further in this jumble of characterizations when scenes that are too brief never let us really lock in on their characters to begin with. An equally hurried scene has a cavalcade of white supremacist organizations fly past us in a blur.
The tedious scenes recounting the Order's series of fundraising robberies, the nitpicky, numbing court confrontations featuring a judge who sounds as bored as we are and the detailed recounting of the death of Order founder Robert Matthews—these all demonstrate a playwright fundamentally preoccupied with presenting all of the salient facts in these cases. But in doing so, Dietz sacrifices almost all of the character development and psychological insight that could have illuminated why these men did what they did in the first place. Shawn Smith is effective as a smug retired Air Force colonel and harrowing as several racist pastors. Shawn Stoner does get at the chill of munitions expert Randall Rader, and, with Milner, provides some rare comic relief in his portrayals of conspiracy theorists in Act 2. While L.A. Rogers is winning as the Denver talk-show host Alan Berg, who was murdered by white supremacists in 1984, he doesn't really display Berg's vitriol.
With a snarled script that repeatedly refers to racial hatred but only rarely depicts it onstage, the production ultimately feels more like a lengthy, disjointed lecture than a play.