How does a man evolve from a progressive, glad-handing Midwestern idealist into a paranoiac cult leader whose freak out in the Guyana jungle left more than 900 of his followers dead? This unacknowledged question carves a gaping hole through “The People’s Temple, ” nearly gutting it. The docu-play about the 1978 Jonestown tragedy and its architect, Jim Jones, is currently in a semi-compelling production at American Theater Company.
The show is comprised of anecdotal interviews. We hear from the handful of people who survived Jonestown (including two of Jones’ children), and those who distanced themselves from the group prior to the mass panicked exodus to Guyana. Written and directed by Leigh Fondakowski, the play offers a thoroughly researched argument that speaks to the allure of Jones and his church—the intensely warm embrace of community and acceptance. If you were poor or cast out, Jones was your man.
From the start, Jones sought to break social race barriers, creating (in the words of one former member), a “truly functioning multi-racial society.” The guy was also terribly charismatic (played by Darrell W. Cox with confident swagger), working the room and cultivating a preacher-man-in-sunglasses look, like the perfect 1970s Hollywood agent. He was a con man, but “he could light you up,” says his son Stephan with a mix of admiration and disgust. He was the George Clooney of cult leaders, and joining his church was like gaining a ticket to an all-immersive rock concert. People felt connected to one another in meaningful ways.
So what went wrong? You can’t talk about Jonestown without really examining Jones and his transformation. The play chooses not to, and you’re left to wonder at details. What was really going on in that church? There is passing mention of sleep deprivation, forcible sex, drug use. (It’s suggested that Jones might have fueled his myth-making with speed). What you never get is a reasonable discussion of the circumstances that led Jones down this path.
The play tends to buckle under the weight of so many voices. The cast often doubles or triples up on roles, confusing things further. No doubt Fondakowski and her collaborators conducted exhaustive interviews, but too often the project feels like an beast that refuses to be tamed. (Nina Metz)
At American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron, (773)929-1031 or www.atcweb.org. Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 4pm and 8pm, Sun 3pm. $30-$35. Through September 28.