Red Stitch’s commitment to new and powerful work that supports Australian playwrights continues with their latest production, Joanna Murray Smith’s powerful American Song. In just 80 minutes, this one man monologue chronicles the hopes and despairs of a middle aged American father Andy who warns us at the beginning about how we all at times must face a moral reckoning and how this is his moment of weighty juncture. Of course Murray Smith is no stranger to monologue presentations –as her celebrated Bombshells demonstrates – however, the writing here has a darker urgency about it, and sadly, an all too relevant timely message to it. This is not just the diatribe of an angry man about the impact of guns on a (inter)national scale, this is the anguished recalling of his life, his family’s life and the personal pain and effect of violence, as well as his journey from grief to some kind of surrendered understanding.
Darryl Cordell’s innovative set of a dominant stone wall under construction surrounded by clear blue painted skies and sandy walled background cleverly misleads the audience at the start to think perhaps Andy is representative of the disillusioned working class, perhaps a bricklayer. However, soon into the piece we realise this creation is perhaps a healing project, a way of mindful time out from the world as Andy knows it, and by the end a monument to his grief and chance to build something that will outlast him and his family for ‘at least three hundred years’.
Joe Petruzzi (seen earlier in Red Stitch’s impressive The Way Things Work) commands and holds our complete attention for the duration. His close work with understanding the text, and with director Tom Healey (Jumpers for Goalposts) showed in every ebb and flow of movement and voice; careful placement of the stones, the reflective pauses in contemplation, the change in directed thought – it was seamless, melodious and lulled us along the storytelling from his courtship and marriage to Amy to the birth and raising of their son Robbie. Nothing was rushed, nothing thrown away – it all mattered and it all felt like droplets converging into a sea of emotional struggle. Andy’s measured ponderings connected us to him as he tries to make sense of the “tiny random things” like his wife’s muggings, their growing distance, his son’s silences, or new friendship with a boy he did not like (Jack). But Andy is no angel, the revelation of his affair with a colleague’s wife Caroline shows his flaws but the earlier endearing musings meant we avoided judgement preferring to just listen and understand how all these pieces fit together and explain his hints of despair. The eventual disclosure of destruction shocks as intended and Petruzzi’s handling of this was thoughtful and raw so that his tidal waves of loss are not only seen but also felt by us. Perhaps the only jarring over forced moment in the whole work was near the end where Andy’s primal scream of agony did not seem to match his contained physical gesture in the back stage right corner. However, that is a minor quibble in a commanding and extraordinary solo performance that shares a father’s grappling of intimate suffering.
Based in a real time and place, Lighting Designer Brownyn Pringle allows the glowing sun to move across the stage as Andy works and stops for reflection openly and directly with us the audience. However, shrewd lighting decisions of darker and tighter focus appear sporadically especially when Andy sits on the stool to share an important personal yarn – illuminating the intimacy of these revelations and drawing subtle attention to their poignancy in the context of the whole play. Sound design was kept simple and mostly unobtrusive by Patrick Cronin whereby a repetitive gong like drum / hum subtly marked different chapters in the storytelling or change of thought as Andy would return to working on his wall project. The final image of Andy laying the remaining stones on the wall recalling those killed and lost was sombre, heartfelt and a perfect way to finish a undeniably successful show.
Readers of Lionel Shriver’s We Need to talk About Kevin (or its film adaptation) or William Landay’s Defending Jacob will immediately see the similarities between this work and the danger of guns in young hands, but this does not mean there isn’t room for other voices. Indeed, Murray-Smith’s play calls forth a fresh new look at the issue with a father’s perspective on teenage disassociation, family disconnect and how allowing moments to go unsaid and slip by can sometimes lead to awful greater tragedies. It is potent, well crafted and beautifully delivered – and likely to have many brimming with frustrated tears just like Andy himself.