What makes 913 people leave family and friends to join a cult in the jungle, and later commit mass suicide? Their motives, and the story behind the Jonestown cult in Guyana, is the subject of James Reston Jr.'s ''Jonestown Express,'' playing at the Trinity Square Repertory Company in Providence, R.I. Unfortunately, it's less drama than a media event.
In documentary fashion, Reston shows the pre-cult life of a dozen of Jones's confused, idealistic followers in segments too brief to let the characters develop and grow on us. Leader Jim Jones is portrayed as greasy-haired, increasingly paranoiac, and given to Iago-like asides. We're never really shown why more than 900 people called this man ''Dad.''
The scenes are fragmented, dreamlike, and interspersed with gospel and revolutionary songs. The plucky cast did what it could with the material, and created a strong community feeling. Strong performances included Becca Lish as a feisty Southern girl and Richard Kavanaugh as the community's doctor.
Reston has done a lot of research on Jones and his People's Temple (including a book and radio broadcast on the subject), so one assumes that his information is correct. However, since he's set the action ''in the mind and memory of the people of Jonestown,'' the line between fact and fantasy becomes blurred. Was there really a ''relationship committee,'' where they kept tabs on each other's nocturnal wanderings? It's plausible, but one wonders. Far from shedding light on the people that joined this sorry endeavor, Reston ridicules them - their self-righteousness, their earnestness, their blindness to Jones's true nature. He reduces US Rep. Leo J. Ryan's investigation to a flippant song-and-dance number. In doing all this, he's trivialized the very subject he meant to illumine.