Review: 'People's Temple' explores the mystery of mass suicide led by Rev. Jim Jones

Ferndale's Puzzle Piece Theatre uses conceit of first-hand accounts in attempt to unpack the inconceivable suicides of

 

It is nearly impossible to conceive what caused more than 900 people to commit mass suicide in Jonestown, Guyana, in 1978 under the direction of the Rev. Jim Jones. “The People’s Temple,” playing at Ferndale’s Puzzle Piece Theatre, attempts to explain.

Ten actors play journalists, politicians, relatives and Jonestown survivors to give a firsthand account of what it was like to be caught in Jones’s orbit. A bus driver (Linda Rabin Hammell) talks about the state-to-state bus caravans that the charismatic Jones launched when he moved his People’s Temple congregation from Indiana to California in the late 1960s.

A politician (Lindel Salow) recalls the impact that a Jones endorsement had on almost any cause, producing over 2,000 people with only a few hours' notice. His large band of interracial followers created a powerful photo opportunity that Jones, a former faith healer, was ready to exploit.

The first half of the play concerns Jones’ rise to power, narrated by those attracted to his bold and often unorthodox calls for social justice. A charter member of the reverend’s self-proclaimed “rainbow family” of ethnically diverse adopted children, Jim Jones Jr. (Craig Ester) recalls Jones’s growing paranoia.

 

 

As related by one his followers (Karen Minard), the cult leader moved his congregation to Guyana, where he quickly carved a community out of the jungle. This was on the eve of an especially damning expose that interviewed former People’s Temple members about the tactics used by Jones to feed his coffers and his ego.

Jones appears in the production, but only through the eyes of others. Aside from a brief bit where an actress dons the dark suit coat and sunglasses, Joe Sfair plays the role with intensity and passion. Sfair also plays Jones’s biological son, Stephen, in a performance of equal intensity but without all of the noise.

The action is set in a warehouse, stacked with cardboard file boxes, as if the witnesses emerged from the reams of typed interviews stored within. Slide images, provided by the California Historical Society and projected on the back wall, add another layer of authenticity.

Director D.B. Schroeder keeps the testimonials flowing, having one character introduce another as his or her turn is done. Even when the rhythm was off on opening night, the show delivered something genuine. More than once it made history come to life.

This testimonial approach to telling a story is nothing new. It was used most famously in “The Laramie Project” and closer to home in “Dream Deferred: Detroit 1967” at the Matrix Theatre this past summer.

The script for “The People’s Temple” comes from Leigh Fondakowski, who was commissioned to write a play to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Jonestown in 2003. The play premiered at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 2005. 

Schroeder and company should get props for staying true to Fondakowski's original intent. But the play, which runs about 2½ hours with intermission, could use a thoughtful trim.

'The People’s Temple'

Three out of four stars

Puzzle Piece Theatre

460 Hilton, Ferndale

248-291-7188

puzzlestage.org

$20

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