America is Hard to See (5 stars)

This article is from 2019

America is Hard to See

credit: Em Watson

Compassionate yet troubling verbatim examination of a community of sex offenders

These people are habitual liars, community psychologist Anne warns us. You can't believe a word they say. It's a warning that runs like a dark thread through this emotionally devastating, deeply troubling show from New York's Life Jacket Theatre Company. This is Miracle Village, a small Florida community like no other. Here, everyone is a convicted child sex offender, living a tightly controlled life on probation following years of incarceration.

Mercifully, there's a total absence of judgement and sensationalism in Life Jacket's admittedly challenging, uncomfortably honest show (and yes, a few upsetting specifics are divulged – as they really need to be). Six actors gradually sketch in these men's back stories, using verbatim testimonies and interviews, though what's true is always up for discussion, of course. There's Chad (a touchingly fragile Harry Waller), a talented music teacher who got too close to a favourite pupil. Or 21-year-old Chris (an appropriately wide-eyed, eager David Spadora), who maintains he never knew his girlfriend of several months was just 14.

Life Jacket director Travis Russ has expertly curated their interviews to create a gripping dramatic arc that constantly keeps you guessing, tackling forgiveness and guilt, truth and lies with remarkable balance. If there'a sense we might empathise too much with these ambiguous characters, we're brought up short with a reminder that their crimes have destroyed lives. Likewise, if we start to condemn, we're reminded that these are men, not monsters, with failings and frailties like we all have.

Life Jacket have been performing the show in the US since early 2018, and it shows: it's a sharp performance that bristles with conviction, with faultless choreography and some heartrending songs. America is Hard to See is challenging in its subject matter, to be sure. But it's a brave, bold, important work, delivered with ringing clarity and purpose, and as unsettling as it is compassionate.

Underbelly Cowgate, until 25 Aug (not 12), 7.45pm, £11–£12 (£10–£11).

America Is Hard to See

  • 5 stars

Life Jacket Theatre Company This daring new play uses a blend of verbatim interviews, Methodist hymns and original songs to investigate the lives in and around Miracle Village, a rural American community for sex offenders buried deep in Florida's sugar cane fields. Direct from a sell-out, award-winning run in NYC. ★★★…