Photo by Darcy HoganLocal playwright Darcy Hogan's TheLandSouthwardis a near-perfect work, the kind that brings a previously little-known or oft-ignored issue out of the darkness of history; infuses it with keen insight, intellectual depth, sly humor and Undeniable Truth; and then neatly wraps it up in ways that make it completely relevant to events going down today. It's a play that sticks to you long after your car has pulled out of the theater parking lot, one that makes you think, “I didn't know that” and makes you wonder whyyou didn't.
Southward's premise concerns the U.S. government's aboveground nuclear-weapons testing programs conducted in Nevada during the '50s and '60s and the health effects suffered by people—largely Mormons—who lived in southern Utah, the fly zone for hundreds of those toxic, wind-blown nuclear clouds.
There are two central storylines, set in two different eras. In one, it's the '50s, and a young, devout Mormon couple, Joe and Maggie (Jason Lythgoe and Erin Michaeli), is trying to start a family. Except they can't because the kids are either stillborn or can't properly form in Maggie's womb. This of course is all very traumatic for them, but being blindingly faithful Mormons, they merely chalk it up to God's will—God is testing them or even punishing them for some sin they don't know about. What they should be doing, though, is wondering if maybe Joe's sperm has been permanently poisoned from his military day job working at the test site and if they shouldn't find some good doctors who won't dismiss the clumps of Maggie's hair that keep falling out as “housewife's disease.” Joe and Maggie are so insanely la-la-la naive you want to kick them for not asking the right questions. In turn, they're also two of the best pro-atheism arguments you're likely to see in a theater piece.
The other story revolves around Liz (Abbie DeVera Jackson), a present-day writer who journeys to Utah to write a book about how the nuke tests affected people—and, more important, why nobody questioned such bizarre events as whole neighborhoods of children being born with extra fingers and toes, or what, exactly, was the pretty pink snow that covered the ground in the summer, which parents used to send their kids outside to play in. Liz spends most of her time interviewing May (Joyce Eriksen), an older woman who lived in southern Utah during the test era, who saw most of her family die but at the time justified it with faith-based excuses such as “Dying is just a part of life” and “It's all Heavenly Father's will.”
Hogan clearly put a lot of thought into this, and all of it works beautifully, from the so-funny-it's-tragic cameo of Adam the Atom, a hand puppet who extols the virtues of nuclear power (a clear allusion to the government's propagandistic public-relations efforts in the '50s that suggested all you needed to survive a nuclear holocaust was to “duck and cover”) to the depiction of ranchers who explain massive, mysterious sheep die-offs as malnutrition, to the my-country-wrong-or-right ignorance of people who absolutely cannot question their leaders because that would be akin to questioning God and “the first law of God is obedience.”
Southward is about how that sort of empty-headed obedience will get you killed, and it ends brilliantly with a 2003 addendum, as a faux newscaster lets the audience know George W. Bush is considering reopening the Nevada nuke site to conduct tests on the so-called “bunker buster” bombs, effectively informing people that if they don't want to see what they've just seen played out in real life again, then it's time to get active. For that alone, TheLandSouthwarddeserves much more than a three-week run at Hunger Artists. It's a play that could be—should be—a classic, if it could only fall into the hands of the right moneyed people.
THE LAND SOUTHWARD AT THE HUNGER ARTISTS THEATER, 699-A S. STATE COLLEGE BLVD., FULLERTON, (714) 680-6803. FRI.-SAT., 8 P.M.; SUN., 7 P.M. THROUGH APRIL 24. $12-$15.