America Is Hard To See @ Underbelly Cowgate
This show by Life Jacket theatre, based on interviews with inhabitants of an isolated community in Florida called Miracle Village, is a brave and honest depiction of sex offenders struggling to come to terms with their crimes
Miracle Village sits about three miles east of Pahokee, Florida. Surrounded by sugar cane fields, it's an isolated place, about a 40-minute drive from the nearest supermarket. For this reason, the site was chosen by Christian organisation Matthew 25 Ministries as a haven for ex-felons convicted of paedophilia and sex crimes; in Florida, registered sex offenders are prohibited from living within 1,000 feet of a school, day care centre, playground, park or other area frequented by children.
This community is the setting of Life Jacket Theatre's play America Is Hard To See, Travis Russ' probing portrayal of the real life characters and stories that he found when visiting the area. There's Chad, the former school teacher who conducted an affair with a fifteen-year-old student, deflecting responsibility by insisting he found true love. Thomas is loud and brash, his only moments of humility coming when admitting in group therapy that he molested his step grandaughter. Chris, the young man who slept with his fourteen year old girlfriend, claims to have never known she was underage.
Thrown together, with little in common except for their crimes, these men who have committed monstrous acts find a sense of purpose and unity in music when the somewhat progressive pastor Patti (played excellently by Amy Gaither-Hayes) gives them the chance to form a church choir at her newly-appointed parish.
Intersected with both methodist hymns and original music composed by Priscilla Holbrook, Russ' script is fluid and strong, dexterously weaving stories, scenes and songs in a manner that seems always natural, never forced. The performances, too, are fascinating and engaging – Harry Waller's Chad is particularily multi-dimensional, posessing a kind of likeable guilessness that makes the eventual reveal of the extent of his crimes even harder to understand.
Russ somewhat hammers home the point that this is a play that can't offer any easy answers to a troubling subject, though. At one point a character, an unnamed therapist, steps forward to directly tell us so. It would have been better to have let the stories speak for themselves, to allow us to struggle with our own feelings of emotional confusion as a natural response. And while the music is beautiful, the entire cast sound like professional singers, which runs the risk of undermining the production's authenticity. We're sure the real men were good singers, but were they really this pitch-perfect? And wouldn't it be more affecting to hear traces of their vulnerability in the notes?
Still, this is a strong and captivating production, which encourages its audience to examine its own preconceptions. Sometimes it's hard to watch, but an important play to see.
America Is Hard To See, Underbelly Cowgate (Big Belly), until 25 Aug, 7.45pm, £10-12