Review: ‘Thank You, Dad’ at Rapid Lemon Productions

In 2018, the 40th anniversary year of what’s become known as The Jonestown Massacre, Rapid Lemon Productions commissioned its first full-length play. Emerging local playwright Aladrian C. Wetzel was “tasked to tell the story of Jim Jones at three different points in his life using documents and transcripts from hundreds of recordings recovered by the FBI.” The result is Thank You, Dad, a riveting one-person show enjoying its world premiere at Baltimore Theater Project through January 20.

Long appreciated for her excellent stage work in performances ranging from Mimi in The Strand’s Harry and the Thief to Prospero in Annex Theater’s The Tempest, Aladrian C. Wetzel is coming into her own as a playwright. Two of her works were produced last year – her ten-minute play, Dark Side of Light, as part of Rapid Lemon’s Variations on Sacrifice, and Infertile Ground, which she developed as a Playwrighting Fellow with Cohesion Theatre Company.

Lance Bankerd as Jim Jones in Thank You, Dad. Photo by Rapid Lemon Productions.

For Thank You, Dad, Wetzel pored through the voluminous, harrowing records of the man responsible for what was, until 9/11, the largest loss of American civilian lives outside of a natural disaster. She distilled that information into a story arc in three acts, representative glimpses of The Reverend Jim Jones at three points in his evolution from a “simple preacher” with a passion for social justice to a “god on earth,” demanding his followers surrender their lives.

Rapid Lemon Productions Artistic Director Lance Bankerd’s portrayal of The Reverend Jim Jones is superb. In Act I, “The Monkey Seller,” we meet 1950s Jim Jones – a god-loving Hoosier with a disarming smile, a growing ministry, and an exotic side hustle. Bankerd is charming and smooth as the door-to-door huckster evangelist. Over the course of Act II, “The People’s Temple,” we witness Jones devolve from one of god’s not-so-humble servants into a straight-up cult leader who has bought into his own mythology. Bankerd performs this transformation with disturbing realism.

After a well-timed intermission, Act III, “Guyana,” jumps forward to November 18, 1978, the day more than 900 people died at the direction of Jim Jones. Despite moving his utopian People’s Temple from California to a jungle compound in South America, Jones still felt under siege. A Congressman had come to Jonestown to investigate allegations of misdeeds. By turns defeated and disconsolate, aggressive and authoritarian, Bankerd delivers Jim Jones’s actual final “sermon” – his justification for ordering mass murder-suicide, in which he comforts and cajoles his followers to first poison the approximately 300 children in attendance, then themselves. Bankerd’s performance is so compelling I hope the actor is doing enough self-care during this run. Holding that level of intensity for that long has got to be taxing.

Despite the subject matter, the play is not somber. There’s humor in Wetzel’s script and Bankerd serves up every drop. For a while, even the ridiculous absurdities Jones is espousing come off as more funny than sinister. It’s only when you remember where it’s all heading that the horror sinks in. Or when something about that mocking voice he uses when impersonating his enemies sounds a little too familiar.

Lance Bankerd as Jim Jones in Thank You, Dad. Photo by Rapid Lemon Productions.

Thank You, Dad was directed collaboratively, with Donna Ibale serving as Director alongside a different Assistant Director for each act (Justin Johnson for Act I, Chara Bauer for Act II, and Lee Conderacci for Act III). Also responsible for the creation of this excellent production are: Stage Manager and Gallery Curator Jennifer Danielle Alexander; Lighting Designer Daniel Weissglass; Projection Designer Chris Uehlinger; Set and Properties Designer Max Garner; Costume Designer House of Bankerd; Assistant Stage Managers Nick Smith and Charles Woods; and Dresser Marie Bankerd. Recorded voices used during the performance are those of Jennifer Danielle Alexander, Chara Bauer, Zipporah Brown, Tina Canady, Lee Conderacci, Terrance Fleming, Max Garner, Justin Johnson, Andrew Porter, Crystal Sewell, Mike Smith, Jared Michael Swain, Aladrian C. Wetzel, and Dana Woodson.

Rapid Lemon Productions chose well when it selected Thank You, Dad to open its 2019 season. Aladrian C. Wetzel’s commissioned work is a powerful piece that sheds light on the oft-sensationalized story of Jim Jones and The People’s Temple. Brought to life through the exceptional performance of Lance Bankerd, Thank You, Dad serves not only as a thoughtful account of a dark historical event, but also as a cautionary tale against unquestioning allegiance to charismatic leaders.

Running Time: Approximately two hours, with one intermission.

Thank You, Dad plays through January 20, 2019, at Rapid Lemon Productions performing at Baltimore Theatre Project – 45 West Preston Street, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (410) 752-8558, or purchase them online.

NOTES:

  • There is a special Industry Night performance tomorrow, Monday, January 14 at 8 pm.
  • The Sunday, January 13 performance of Thank You, Dad has been canceled due to weather. The talkback entitled “Jim Jones and the Danger of Demagogues” will now take place immediately following the 3 pm performance on Sunday, January 20. The panel will consist of playwright Aladrian C. Wetzel, actor and RLP Artistic Director Lance Bankerd, and Director Donna Ibale and will explore the themes of the play, including the many manipulative tactics Jones employed to ascend within People’s Temple as a political leader, a father and a god. James Fenimore Cooper in 1838 identified four fundamental characteristics of demagogues: (1) They fashion themselves as a man or woman of the common people, opposed to the elites, (2) Their politics depend on visceral connection with the people, which greatly exceeds ordinary political popularity, (3) They manipulate this connection, and the raging popularity it affords, for their own benefit, and (4) They break or threaten established rules of conduct, institutions, and even the law.
  • Bring your program next door to Red Emma’s Bookstore Coffeehouse and get 10% off your bill for dinner and/or drinks.