Review: America Is Hard To See, Underbelly Cowgate, Edinburgh Fringe

America Is Hard To See is a transformative theatrical experience. In its fusion of verbatim interviews, Methodist hymns and original score, the play blows the doors to Miracle Village wide open. A rural dot secreted amid the sugarcane fields of Florida, its community is made up of sex offenders. This is art concentrated on liminal spaces. Grey areas that bridge the distance between music and theatre, living and existing, the public and the personal – the stretch that separates monsters and mankind.

As if their crimes were somehow contagious, the felons (that aren’t allowed to be anywhere else) are known of but largely invisible to surrounding citizens. That is, until the neighbourhood is approached by a creative outfit, who are interested in telling their story. Using a meta-theatrical framework, the stage bends reality into fiction, but never lets its audience stray from the former. After a revealing group therapy session early on, a medical professional warns the audience that the characters are prone to equivocating. Though, such as with Humbert Humbert in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, it is ashamedly easy to become bewitched, even convinced by the perpetrators point of view. 

The narrative – led by Patti (Amy Gaither-Hayes), a Pastor based in Pahokee and Chad (Harry Waller), a former choir director who “flunked out of gay rehab” – is organised into ‘field notes’, within which songs and stories collide. Both music (by Priscilla Holbrook) and religion play a central role, pulling at questions surrounding forgiveness as well as a potential atonement with God. The mediums work to humanise the characters – it is haunting. Searing, even. Written by Travis Russ, the script too is sharp and deft in its balancing of opposing worlds, particularly in relation to two specific types of person presented onstage: those that have done wrong to the state, and those that have been done wrong by the state.

A focus on the relationship shared by Chris (the latest addition to Miracle Village, played by David Spadora) and Lexi (Gareth Tidball), Patti’s daughter, toys with the latter. A device that consistently presents the spectator with an unexpected obstacle at the heart of one’s moral compass. The enigmatic and tortured portrayals given by the cast of actor-musicians also helps to further this. What is left is dizzying and surreal. America Is Hard To See may be an unbridled portrait of societal outcasts, yet somehow it manages to make insiders of outsiders. The whole post-truth world is their stage.

America Is Hard To See is playing at Underbelly Cowgate until 25 August 2019. For more information and tickets, visit the Edinburgh Fringe website.