‘Jonestown’ gives crowd up-close view of insanity

Under the valley’s northwest sky, a unique theatrical experience unfolds. Table 8 Productions’ presentation of “Jonestown” puts us into the story as members of the megalomaniac Rev. Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple congregation, famous for committing mass suicide in 1978 by drinking cyanide-laced Kool-Aid at its compound in Guyana.

From start to finish, an intense atmosphere is maintained as we move from car to church to pavilion of death in this disturbing piece.

Writer-director Troy Heard’s unconventional script is curated from FBI transcripts and takes place in two parts. At first we are guided into the Peoples Temple by actors (such as the passionate Natalie Senecal) who play devoted followers of the church and who sit with us in the sanctuary as we listen to a fervent sermon by Jones (a forceful Scott McAdam) that not only draws us in but also bewilders. At times we are overwhelmed because we not only must absorb the rantings of the charismatic “Earth God” but also tidbits taken from historical newsclips and presented as didactic asides by narrators, which unfortunately breaks the intensity.

We are bombarded with information but also feel a sense of connection to our fellow worshippers and the magnetic Jones until sirens suddenly shriek and we are hastily rushed to our fate at the Guyana compound. It’s Nov. 18, 1978, the final day of the cult’s existence, and as we are led into the pavilion, we are seated on hay bales and greeted by a drugged, dazed Jones slouched on a wooden throne.

So begins the second half of the show with dialogue taken verbatim from a tape that was recorded as actual suicides occurred. It’s an oddly nonchalant conversation in which the deranged Jones attempts to justify death to escape persecution from perceived enemies.

Christine (the intense Valerie Carpenter-Bernstein) is the lone dissenter to this sinister plan, trying to dissuade Jones through rational logic with humanity and morality and a love for life. When she says, “We all have a right to our own destiny as individuals. … I think I have a right to choose mine and everybody else has a right to choose theirs,” we feel an incredible empathy with her and a sadness that brings tears to our eyes.

It’s ironic when the others disagree and brand her as crazy, with Jones saying at the end, “We committed an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world.” Then we line up to receive our poison.

Director Heard with co-director Erik Amblad have succeeded in creating the immersive, unconventional theatrical experience they desired, though there is uneveness because of an overly didactic first half and a lack of creepiness in the second. But the lovely outdoor setting heightens the reality feeling of the piece, with art direction by The Design Ninjas Inc. minimal but effective in the pavilion scene, though the church set could use a little bling.

Many performers play multiple roles, and some are especially powerful. McAdam is focused, believable and enticing as the self-aggrandizing Jones, especially during his crazy sermonizing when he makes us feel a part of things. And though in the second act he captures the narcotized detachment of Jones, there is a sinister side that needs to be seen.

Carpenter-Bernstein is plaintive and tragic as Christine, tugging at our emotions with heart and compassion. Senecal imbues her characters with the scary strength and determination of the brainwashed type.

“Jonestown” gives a fresh new perspective to the theatrical experience, and you can drink the Kool-Aid if you want.

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