Frank (Randy Quaid) and Emma (J. Smith Cameron) are an ordinary couple who run a dairy farm in Wisconsin. Frank enjoys raising heifers while Emma is obsessed with watering her plants. Frank's old friend Haynes (Frank Wood) has come to stay with the couple; he has a mysterious past and seems to have been involved in some kind of secret government research. Shortly after his arrival, another strange visitor comes calling at the farm. Welch (Tim Roth) hints that he's an operative for an unspecified agency within the American government. He asks Emma some rather odd questions while simultaneously trying to get her to buy patriotic merchandise.
Quaid is excellent during the play's quieter moments, exuding a laid-back attitude that conveys a solid, calm dependability, but he's less successful as the play shifts in tone and he's called upon to be more manic. He does, however, have a nice, easy chemistry with Cameron; the two are believable as a long-married couple. Cameron bustles about with a nervous energy, but this actress possesses an earthiness that grounds her character; she also has an amiable presence that immediately puts the audience on her side.
Wood excels at non-verbal reactions and slight, almost spoken phrases. He has a great sense of comic timing and his physical mannerisms have a goofy, restrained quality that are offset by violent explosions of temper. As the mysterious government agent, Roth delivers a fabulous over-the-top performance. Smartly dressed in a black suit and carrying an attaché case, he enters brandishing a red, white, and blue flag cookie as if it were his calling card. He moves about with a jaunty air, his facial expressions and vocal delivery projecting an extremely funny air of arrogance and condescension. The British actor has not dropped his native accent, which makes the American patriot he portrays seem even more peculiar.
The title of the play alludes to Pluto, the Greek god of the underworld. According to Haynes, the word "plutonium" is derived from the god's name, and it soon becomes clear that radiation was involved in whatever experiments Haynes participated in. A flash of light appears whenever he comes in physical contact with another living thing, a phenomenon that he attributes to static shock. When Haynes describes how plutonium remains radioactive for 500,000 years, causing genetic mutations, it becomes increasingly clear that his visit will have long-lasting effects upon the lives of his friends -- and their cows.
Although set designer David Korins has fashioned a handsome, naturalistic set, the style of the production is largely surreal. As in several of his earlier works -- such as his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1979 drama, Buried Child -- Shepard ventures into an almost mythical dream-like territory here. Unfortunately, in the final scene of The God of Hell, the playwright sacrifices characterization for effect. While the first two thirds of the play crackle with witty dialogue and a strong sense of the personalities of each character, most of that has been muted by play's end. In its stead, Shepard offers a bleak, near-apocalyptic vision that eschews subtlety in favor of a pointed political critique.