A theatrically accomplished verbatim piece around sex offenders in Miracle Village, Maggie Kelly reviews America Is Hard to See and finds it to be wonderful theatre:

They’re, what do you guys call them, unreliable narrators

Sexual battery, lascivious sexual molestation, lascivious sexual molestation.

Two counts, one count, one count.

Fingering an 11-year-old girl vs crooning to a girlfriend accompanied by a gorgeous guitar

Fondling a sleeping 15-year-old vs playing church piano with a calm yet heady intensity.

The testimony of a terrified 14-year-old describing bruises on her arms and legs set against a cute burgeoning relationship between her assaulter and a college student.

David Spadora

America Is Hard To See is a quasi-verbatim piece created out of hours of interviews from trips to Miracle Village, a small community buried in the middle of Florida’s sugarcane fields. These go through a yearly culling, where vast swathes of the countryside are set on fire, showering the neighborhood with black snow. But be careful – if the fire is not checked properly it will grow, destroying years of hard work to leave an empty husk behind.

The sex offenders whose voices form the backbone of Life Jacket Theatre’s piece haven’t quite managed to control their flames. Starting the show is a recorded conversation of a self-help group where each member must describe the exact nature of their misdemeanor while being aware of the tape recorder echoing in the middle of the room. Naturally, this spells trouble.

The entire cast portray each of their many, many characters with total style and grace. Harry Waller stands out as the perennially withdrawn Chad while Amy Gaither-Hayes stuns as the lynchpin of the whole piece, Pastor Patti.

Amy Gaither-Hayes (image courtesy of Em Watson)

However, after this breathtaking scene, creative license is taken. Nowhere is it made particularly clear what is verbatim and what isn’t. Priscilla Holbrook’s musical compositions might be stunning out of context, but within a piece and a form that is based upon an air of authenticity, they tend to emotionally manipulate the audience.

It’s exactly what a therapist warns the recording theatre company against at the very top of the show. These criminals are liars, unreliable narrators.

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The cast of America Is Hard To See

The ensemble guide us around their docu-theatre as they see fit, layering live music and sung numbers, artfully chosen to provoke emotion before breaking it with a carefully-placed witness statement that shatters all rosy feelings towards the voices.

While this is all beautiful and gorgeously done, it leaves a faintly bitter taste at the top of the mouth. The company has total license to tell whatever story they want to tell – to mould, to guide, to manipulate those watching. And yet America Is Hard to See does not just portray the voices of accusers and accused, show the stories crumped and dirty on the ground instead of carefully ironed out and hung up in the sun. ‘Real’ verbatim is confused with constructed narrative, a ridiculously clever academic exercise on Life Jacket’s part that mirrors the testimony of those they speak to. But this is a dichotomy that feels accidental rather than contributing to the piece.

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The cast of America Is Hard To See

This is not to deny the skill of those involved and the total control they have over the tale they tell. Pastor Patti’s confession at the end is crushing, Steinway’s email devastating. The offenders are gorgeously caught between audience empathy and the sudden realization of the impact they’ve had on the lives of their victims.

There isn’t a weak link; the expertise and specificity in the room are astounding; this is wonderful theatre. But be careful, guys. These be unreliable narrators.

★★★★☆

America Is Hard To See is now playing at Underbelly Cowgate until 25 August 2019. For more information or to buy tickets, please visit the festival website.