'There's some weird shit goin' on' notes lifer Lee Fenton at the beginning of Richard Vergette's play. And he's right enough. But not quite in the way we suppose, as this psychological thriller about restorative justice, personal responsibility, guilt and recrimination in the Obama administration whips its tail-end back and forth like a rattlesnake.
Director Lisa Forrell extends the institutional atmosphere beyond the stage, with guards patrolling the aisles and the echoes of doors slamming down sunless corridors. Grey with grief, Peter Tate's Congressman Daniels waits nervously in a drab improvised 'schoolroom', setting out to educate the murderer of his daughter. Then in steps Ryan Gage's Fenton, blazing belligerently in regulation orange, with a Joker-wide smile that comes to suggest both generous amusement and animal threat.
True to the clichés of liberal prison drama, Fenton turns out to be witty, sharp, inquisitive, and more than a match for Daniels's speechifying eloquence. Fenton coughs up his backstory of childhood deprivation and neglect in one neat little pellet, and David Schaal's Republican warden Stevens forms a functional third point to the triangle.
Vergette has 25 years' teaching experience and Daniels's discovery, 20 years too late, that Fenton needs reading glasses is horribly believable. But the play is more interested in worrying at the knot of complex human motives behind every progressive social policy.
Taking his moral barometer from 'It's a Wonderful Life', Vergette offers a clear warning to Obama's administration to turn all those 'something must be done!'s into actions. But hope doesn't win out in Daniels and Fenton's relationship, which flicks so easily from an unlikely mutual support mechanism to a game of torture. As Fenton, fucked over and forsaken, holds out his wrists for the handcuffs in the final moments, he wears an expression that looks oddly like triumph.