American Justice, which at first seems to be the classic case of the ‘misunderstood criminal’ trapped in the unforgiving justice system, soon proved itself to be an intriguing psychological thriller that really challenges the values and attitudes modern society holds.
Originally a play by Richard Vergette; director Lisa Forrell’s new adaption forces its West End audience to confront the political and criminal justice system not only in America, but in Britain too.
The play follows the unlikely pairing of recently elected congressman John Daniels (Peter Tate) and the illiterate delinquent, Lee Fenton (Ryan Gage) who is serving a life sentence for murdering Daniels beloved daughter in cold blood. Their connection seems implausible in reality; however we are led through their forged friendship, and the trials and tribulations that come with it.
Filled with a supposed sense of Christian redemption, John Daniels seeks to forgive and educate the thug Fenton, against the wishes of right wing Evangelist and hardened prison warden (David Schaal). Schalls performance as Warden demonstrates the extreme, irrational acts of violence imposed onto prisoners as a means of ‘enforcing authority’; and the all-too-common racist attitudes surrounding the election of America’s first black president.
Throughout the play Congressman Daniels defends Fenton and even protects him from death row, leading us to believe he is truly a man of benevolence. He masks his good deeds as part of a campaign under Barack Obama’s administration, citing his wishes for a fairer, more equal society. The play sheds light on the predisposed criminality many prisoners faced in their childhoods, a factor that ultimately led them to a life of crime. Furthermore, the formidable fact that 63% of U.S. prison inmates are illiterate is reiterated by Daniels in his quest to lower the recidivism rate.
The play wittingly sweeps over a decade, therefore keeping the play short and sweet at only 75-minutes long. As the 8 years of Obamas administration comes to an end, the now educated Fenton questions the ulterior motives of his teacher. The grieving father looking for a means of closure is replaced with that of a ruthless politician who exploits his own situation and that of his alcoholic wife, in order to boost his political career.
All ends on a surprising and deeply moving note, as we are driven to question who the real victim is; the rich despairing father or the poverty stricken vicious murderer?
American Justice is playing at the Arts Theatre until 9 February 2013.