Thirty-year-old playwright Declan Greene has created a catalogue of stage plays for some of Australia’s most respected theatre companies, all of which take an intense and subversive way about storytelling. I Am A Miracle is no exception, but certainly demonstrates a more mature voice than say 2012’s Pompeii, L.A.
According to director Matthew Lutton’s notes, this play has been made for Marvin Lee Wilson, an African American man, executed by lethal injection in 2012 for the murder of a police drug informant. Wilson had an IQ of 61 – 9 points under what the state of Texas considered to be mentally retarded by law – meaning his death sentence should have been commuted under state legislation.
Greene’s play riffs on the issues brought to the fore by this miscarriage of justice by having an embodiment of Wilson (Bert LaBonte) describe his thoughts as he counts down until the moment of his death. Set amongst a stage strewn with random chairs and detritus lit harshly from the side, in front of an expansive curtain, Marg Horwell and Paul Jackson’s design embodies the scattered nature of Wilson’s mind.
He’s joined on stage by two other prisoners (Melita Jurisic and Hana Lee Crisp), who begin to sing a haunting, operatic-style tune before Jurisic removes her prison garb to reveal the costume of an 18th Century Dutch soldier. Suddenly we’re transported to Suriname, where Jurisic as a boy soldier, tells the tale of his part in the colonial war there against the slave rebellion. It’s an absolutely mesmerising performance as she plays out various male roles in an extended monologue, only given colour by minimal interjections from LaBonte, small amounts of movement and all of Jurisic’s skills of characterisation. The long and bloody battle between the Dutch plantation colonists of this South American outpost and their escaped African slaves, serve as narrative background to the thematic comparison of the injustices served upon a people who could well have been Wilson’s ancestors.
As swiftly as it began this sub-plot ends as the curtain at the back of the stage pervasively engulfs all before it but Hana Lee Crisp as Wilson’s archangel, who in soprano beautifully soliloquises a pseudo religious aria (by composer David Chisholm). The curtain then retracts, sweeping the stage clean of the flotsam and jetsam that made up Wilson’s prison which is now arrange to be the more ordered, modern-day home of a man – LaBonte again – who seems like he might be in the early stages of dementia. Jurisic is now his wife, although she seems far too old for him, bringing a wonderfully natural interpretation of a home life turned upside down, as her husband becomes gradually more and more severely affected by his condition, to the point of violent outbursts and erratic behaviour. LaBonte shows supreme skill in his portrayal of this man on the brink, suffering from an injustice that can’t be seen or countered.
Finally, we reach Wilson’s execution as Hana Lee Crisp’s angel of redemption pulls apart the fabric of existence, metaphorically unwriting all the wrongs done to Wilson and those who came before and after him.
It’s ambitious theatre creation from both Lutton and Greene, (aided greatly by Jackson’s lighting and Marco Cher-Gibard’s sound design) and for its individual elements it works very well. The sum of its parts perhaps don’t add up to greater than the whole however, as many elements jar with one another – the paucity of staging in the Suriname sequence for example, makes the abundance of a revolving stage for the Dementia sequence seem gauche, but perhaps that was the intent.
Greene’s tendency to expect his audience to do the heavy lifting in regards to creating narrative connections between scenes is a bit of a cheat to give the impression of greater meaning than has been produced, but nevertheless, it does stimulate both thought and conversation. This is the perfect kind of theatre for folks who don’t like their meaning to be served up to them on a platter. A frustratingly intriguing, yet inspirational reflection on the desire to correct injustice wherever it may occur.