The Mormon In All of Us

The Hunger Artists bash, latterday plays

Conservatives have worked hard to make a liberal poster child out of John Walker, the California guy who, at age 20, fought alongside Taliban militiamen until his capture by U.S.-backed soldiers in Afghanistan. Walker told his American interrogators he'd met Osama bin Laden, asserted his support for the Sept. 11 attack, and expressed no regret that he'd fired on U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Conservatives went into a frenzy. The Wall Street Journal said his Marin County hometown is the "Mecca of moral muddling." Shelby Steele said Walker "came out of a self-hating stream of American life" and pointed directly to Marin as the headwaters of that stream.

But no one has tried to Walkerize Andrea Yates, the stay-at-home Texas mother who systematically drowned five of her seven home-schooled children last June—and did so in a state governed by Republicans and a congressional district represented by archconservative Tom DeLay. Nor has anyone tried to Walkerize Larry C. Ford, the Irvine doctor, Mormon and biotech mogul who arranged a February 2000 hit on his business partner before blowing out his own brains in a bizarre story involving conservative politics, weapons stockpiles, biological agents and a suburban neighborhood represented by Congressman Chris Cox.

No one has tried to Walkerize these conservative murderers, and no one should. Politics don't kill; people do. And to Walkerize murder or mayhem (did I mention that the Columbine High School shootings took place when that part of Colorado was represented by pro-gun Republican Tom Tancredo?) is an obvious attempt to politicize what is simply and horribly human: the capacity in each of us to carry out acts of gross inhumanity. This there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I quality is what attracts us to Walker's story—and to Columbine's and Yates' and Ford's. The conservative search for a liberal to blame is what the folks in Marin might reasonably call "denial": the deliberate repression of what's real and dark in our nature.

Denial might explain why playwright Neil LaBute chose Mormons as the villains in each of his three gruesome shorts collected in bash, latterday plays. Whether infanticide, queer-bashing or straightforward murder, Mormons are behind the carnage—apparently well-adjusted, decent Mormons whose masks slowly drop during the course of each play, revealing the faces of maniacs.

Using clean-cut Mormons as agents of hell makes the violent acts in these plays seem even more abominable. It's a brilliant dramatic choice: Charles Manson types are pretty easy to spot—they broadcast their sickness. It's the perfect people—those who stuff their pathological impulses—who are truly scary, partly because they're all of us.

Each of these plays features common people who reveal themselves capable of shocking deeds. In Iphigenia in Orem, it's a Utah businessman (a wholly believable Mark Coyan) who confesses a horrible crime to a stranger in a Las Vegas hotel room. In A Gaggle of Saints, it's a young college couple (Russ Marchand and Jessica Beane, who couldn't be funnier, more enthusiastic or more twisted) recounting their sixth-anniversary celebration: a trip to New York that includes a savage beating. In Medea in Redux, a young woman (a chillingly remorseless Jamie McCoy) recounts her affair with her junior high school teacher.

The structure of LaBute's plays isn't much to boast about—there's a lot of information dumping and apparently unnecessary exposition punctuated by graphic descriptions of horrible crimes followed by a retreat into the seemingly mundane. But he has a good ear for language, and his attention to details keeps things interesting throughout. So does director Katie Chidester's spartan staging. The focus here is on the words, and the actors deliver them well.

There's no neat tying up of moral loose ends. No remorse. No acts of contrition. No requests for forgiveness. The violent explosions are just that—eruptions of hate and revenge that are just as quickly submerged. Ultimately, the plays might remind you of a lyric from Bruce Springsteen's "Nebraska." After a Midwest killing spree, a judge asks the murderer why he did what he did. The man replies: guess there's just a meanness in this world.

It's hardly an uplifting message, but it's easily forgotten and almost always denied. We don't want to face the evil genius of the human soul. We want to keep it hidden, locked away. And when it gets out occasionally, we're all left stunned, asking how someone could do such a thing. In reality, the more important question might be: Why doesn't it happen more often?

bash, latterday plays at the Hunger Artists Theatre Co., 204 E. Fourth St., Ste. I, Santa Ana, (714) 547-9100. Fri.-Sat., 8:30 p.m.; Sun., 7:30 p.m. Through Feb. 3. $12-$15.

 
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