American Song

Theatre, Drama
4 out of 5 stars
American Song 2017 Red Stitch production still 01 feat Joe Petruzzi photographer credit Teresa Noble
Photograph: Teresa Noble Joe Petruzzi

The Australian premiere of Joanna Murray-Smith's one-man play about American gun violence is tragically prescient

Unlike many of Australia’s great storytellers, prolific playwright Joanna Murray-Smith has (to occasional criticism) tended to avoid tying her plays to any specific cultural anchor, other than a clear affinity for the experiences of the colonial middle class. So, it’s particularly fascinating that one of the strongest works in her canon breaks with this trend, although it’s not her native Australia to which she has turned for inspiration. Rather, America is her muse in this evening-length monologue exploring the endlessly tragic US obsession with guns. 

With the recent appalling loss of life at the hands of a lone shooter in Las Vegas, the timing of this Australian premiere feels eerily prescient. And yet, not gratuitously so. As America’s political machine, controlled by the moneyed might of the US Gun Lobby, conjures the familiar smoke screen of constitutional rights, Murray-Smith offers a relevant and deeply moving window on the broken humanity left in the wake of these atrocities. 

This innately difficult subject matter is sensitively navigated through the experiences of Andy Mancheski, played by Red Stitch Company actor Joe Petruzzi. As he builds a flagstone wall at his remote rural property, he muses on the building blocks of his own life; has he constructed a firm foundation, or will the mistakes of his past, despite his best efforts and meticulous planning, lead him to collapse? Will his legacy, like a well-made wall, last for generations, or will his contributions to the world merely crumble to dust? What follows this visual metaphor is a seemingly simple story, laced with the bright, educated wit ever-present in Murray-Smith’s theatre.

We hear of Andy’s awkward teenage years, how he fell in love with his wife, how they had a child, Robbie, and periodically handballed their parental responsibilities to each other, as they developed their careers and their comfortable suburban lifestyle. Like most families, they faced struggles. Both a mugging and an affair brought the Mancheskis into contact with gun violence. But are their experiences so different from that of other American families?  

The answer to this is also the root of this play’s power. Andy’s is an unremarkable story, albeit told with poetic skill by Murray-Smith. He is an American Gerontius, holding tight to a devout, romanticised vision, summoned via Walt Whitman’s Leaves Of Grass, of a shining, libertarian utopia. So, when his ordinary, easily relatable life is shattered by the unthinkable, Andy’s desperate search for reason is all the more poignant. His son Robbie – a regular, academically gifted kid, sometimes distant, but no more so than his peers – has followed in the footsteps of the armed teens who slaughtered children at Columbine and Sandy Hook. Andy simultaneously becomes a grieving parent and the father of a monster, at once denied the right to mourn and the closure of clemency. 

Using a mass-shooting as the dramatic catalyst of this piece could very easily lean on emotional clichés, but Murray-Smith is a deft craftsman. Her control of language and pace mirror the increasingly fractured mental state of her protagonist, as rose-tinted, sentimental nostalgia, charting decades of Andy’s life, give way to the acute anguish of a single moment, relived with crushing disbelief.  

At 80 minutes (sans interval) the demands of this text on its solitary actor are brutal. Largely, Petruzzi shoulders these burdens impressively, save for a few moments of unsteadiness; under the direction of Tom Healy, he displays both the affable charisma to keep an audience charmed in this play’s gentler yarns, and the emotional heft to harness the fury and futility of Andy’s irreconcilable trauma.  

As for originality of plot, the broad strokes of American Song share an obvious quantity of DNA with many similar works, such as Lionel Shriver’s 2003 novel We Need To Talk About Kevin or Shawn Ku’s underrated 2010 film Beautiful Boy. But this hardly matters. Murray-Smith finds a unique quality in the slowly eroded lyricism of this play, and as America’s senseless gun crisis has repeatedly shown us, this is a horrifyingly inexhaustible narrative that cannot be contained in just a single telling.

By: Maxim Boon

1 person listening