Set in America’s Deep South and betraying many elements of writer Richard Vergette’s work history within the education system, American Justice takes a sharp look at the state of the American penal system and the potential that education has to improve the lives of some of the men imprisoned – wrongly or rightly – for sentences that stretch beyond reason. Where does a 101-year sentence leave you, after all, and why shouldn’t the incarcerated be given the opportunity to try and redeem, develop and improve themselves?
In the lead role of convicted murderer Lee Fenton, Ryan Gage excels, displaying a wonderful mix of malevolence and earnestness as he portrays Fenton's burgeoning frustration at his own illiteracy and inability to see properly. Gage's expressive acting shows us subtle changes in character as Fenton’s life begins to change thanks to education, before he is returned to steeliness and - this time contained - fury as his learning curve comes to a horrible anti-climax.
Fenton's lack of education clouds his brain and suppresses his verbosity until the blustery, almost over-the-top Congressman Daniels (Peter Tate) turns up with a plan to help him learn to read. He seemingly wants to forgive him for causing the death of his daughter, managing to maintain composure throughout their sessions, though his rhetoric gradually begins to grate as his motives become ever more questionable.
There are occasional jarring inconsistencies – if Fenton was so short-sighted, why didn’t anyone notice previous to him going to jail for life? Surely the authorities aren’t quite so stupid as to miss something so huge - at that level of short-sightedness, anyone would struggle to lead a daily life? Or maybe this is pure naïvete, and they really don’t care a jot.
It also feels like the story moves on far too quickly from the early stages of Fenton and Daniels’ relationship. We slide quickly from the heavy intensity of their early, harsh repartee to Fenton’s much more bookish, intelligent persona four years down the line, without really showing much character development. When did the click happen? How did he learn so much so fast?
Subtle sound design from Tom Lishman helps to build the atmosphere and the fight direction by Lewis Penfold is superb, building just enough violence and vitriol to get the heart thumping.. However, Deep South accents are tough to come by for British actors, and only Gage manages the feat, David Schaal’s bigoted warden never quite convincing in this respect.
This plays poses a number of important questions, including that of redemption – is it possible to ever truly save someone? As Fenton is, almost necessarily, abandoned, his parting act to leave the cocksure Daniels unsettled and confused, we find ourselves wondering who the evil one really is. This isn’t a perfect play by any stretch of the imagination, but it has great potential.
-by Miriam Zendle