Making its West End debut at the Arts Theatre, Richard Vergette’s thrilling play American Justice soars to levels of bone-chilling intensity. Set in a prison facility in America’s Deep South, the play explores issues of politics and morality as Congressman John Daniels institutes a prison reform programme that focuses on providing convicted criminals with access to education. His first student: the man who killed his daughter.
The relationship between the two men is expectedly turbulent. When Congressman Daniels (Peter Tate) first meets Lee Fenton (Ryan Gage), Lee is violent, hateful, distrusting, and hardened in body and spirit from the routine abuse of prison life. But with steadfast dedication and a surprising amount of compassion, Daniels manages to break down Fenton’s barrier of hostility. Before long, Fenton’s transformation is evident.
The play, however, doesn’t end with an against-all-odds bond between a privileged politician and his daughter’s murderer. In the play’s final 20 minutes, a series of unpredictable twists dramatically raise the stakes and leave the audience with many unanswered questions about justice, forgiveness, and guilt.
Consistently strong acting and superior direction allow Vergette’s sharply written drama to achieve its full potential. Peter Tate intricately sheds the layers of the Congressman’s multidimensional character with impressive honesty. Ryan Gage is magnificent in the particularly difficult role of Lee Fenton, and witnessing Fenton’s transformation from a violent criminal to a thoughtful and vulnerable man manages to be both heart-warming and heartbreaking by the play’s conclusion. David Schaal is appropriately detestable as the bible-thumping and bullying prison warden, exercising his power with loathsome yet truly believable pride. Director Lisa Forrell captures the play’s intensity with simple yet dynamic directorial choices, and Signe Beckmann’s set design enhances the cold prison setting.
American Justice raises many questions about the politics of crime, poverty, and justice — none of which can be easily answered. But Vergette’s play, and the Arts Theatre’s production, is especially powerful because its gripping story surpasses political commentary, captivating its audience with unpredictable plot turns and painfully honest performances. Its only shortcoming is its length of only 75 minutes—with such strong material, the climax and conclusion seem to come too soon. But always leave them wanting more, right? This play has certainly left me wanting more, and successfully manages to fill every minute with fulfilling drama and suspense.
American Justice is playing at the Arts Theatre until 9 February. For more information and to book tickets, visit www.artstheatrewestend.co.uk