American Justice is a play set in America written by a British playwright, set during the days of the Obama administration from 2008 when Obama won the election until 2016 when his second term will end. The entirety of the play takes place inside a prison. The cast comprises of two guards, a warden, an inmate and a visitor.
We first meet Herb Stevens (David Schaal), an overweight warden who comes across as a bit of a cliche Southern republican. He makes sure everything is in order along with his two wardens, who watches the room in the prison from the balcony. They then let in John Daniels (Peter Tate), a politician who has just been elected to congress. He is there to meet Lee Fenton (Ryan Gage), a prisoner serving life for the murder of Daniels’ daughter. Daniels is at the prison with a mission – he wants to educate Fenton and has been granted permission to do so by the courts.
The play chronicles three meetings between the two men, coinciding with election years. The first meeting takes place in 2008, the second in 2012 and the third in 2016. What has happened in the time between the meetings? How has the relationship between the men changed? And finally, what will happen after the last meeting we witness? American Justice leaves a lot to interpretation, with just hints to fill in the blanks of how the characters got to where they are when we see them.
It is a bit refreshing to go and see a short play. American Justice clocks in at 75 minutes, slightly less than your average animated family movie. It can be good to see a story unfold without the break of the interval, and if done well it can keep the intensity up. On the other hand, it can be a bit too shallow a dig into a story, and at times American Justice suffers from this.
Without spoiling the end, the play’s last minutes reveals information and character motivation that makes you see the play from start to finish with a different point of view. It is not a particularly surprising twist, but it’s interesting to see where the play takes it.
More than anything it’s a thrill to see the dynamic between the two characters as it changes over time, and how Fenton changes into a very different man by the end, while still keeping his edge. Fenton is never tamed, his anger remains under the surface, but by controlling it and himself he becomes much more powerful and interesting. Daniels on the other hand fades, and his desperation or grief never hits you emotionally in the way Fenton’s rage does. It is an interesting moment when Fenton points out that Daniels never did come across as a grieving father, and turns the tables on him.
As Fenton is led out of the room a final time, he smiles. You leave the theatre without clear answers and have to make up your own opinions, after seeing a play that kicks in both liberal and conservative directions, without offering a solution. It is a somewhat frustrating end, but much more interesting to take away than if it was neatly tidied up.
This play will not appeal to everyone and is likely to feel dated in only a few years as we approach the later years depicted in the play, especially if it turns out reality and fiction are very different to each other. It failed to wow the patron to our left as he fell asleep towards the end and managed to get a few loud snores out before his companion shook him awake. And I suppose you can argue that not that much happens in the play, which is basically three meetings in the same sparse room. But it is an interesting character piece that asks questions that are relevant to where we are at this moment in time, and makes the point that is easy to agree with for us in Europe: that criminals should be educated and rehabilitated rather than just punished.
American Justice is playing until 9th February, 2013 at the Arts Theatre. If you like intense material with a strong political foundation, this is a good one to go see.
Review by Tori Jo Lau
6-7 Great Newport Street
Updated Thursday 17th January 2013