Writer: Tegan McLeod
Director: Jonathan Martin
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Immigration and deportation programmes are notoriously bleak and devoid of humanity or compassion for the perceived criminal, and in America these processes are even more complex as Bounty Hunters and other kinds of hired law enforcement professionals play a part. Tegan McLeod’s first full length play in the UK Lunatic 19s: A Deportational Road Trip places one such officer on a surprising journey with a young woman being deported to Mexico for a minor misdemeanour.
Recovering in hospital after a near-fatal car crash and limited by a back brace, Gracie is accosted on her sick bed by Alec a federal marshal who demands her immediate surrender. Locked in the transportation van for days from Kentucky to the border the pair come into conflict over Alec’s refusal to acknowledge Gracie as a person and accept his own racial heritage.
McLeod has done a lot of thinking about the implications of US nationhood built not on social contribution through payments of tax and insurance but entirely on possessing the right paperwork in the right order. The zero-tolerance policy shown to Gracie in the play is symptomatic of a structure that lacks nuance, a one-size-fits-all approach that cannot account for personal circumstances or – in Gracie’s case deported for a hire car infringement – sense.
Yet in bringing this scenario to life, what begins as a tightly controlled two-handed about the racial power balance in American society starts to disintegrate as more domestic plot lines take precedence. Conversations that shift location barely move on in subject matter and character insight, and McLeod muddies the waters with some thinly explored backstories. A Deportational Road Trip suddenly morphs from an exposéto an over-encumbered tragedy as it deals with domestic violence, drug addiction, marital breakdown and miscarriage, making it increasingly difficult to know what McLeod wants to say.
Gracie is an interesting multi-dimensional lead and not quite the innocent victim she appears to be initially. Fresh from the critically acclaimed West Side Story in Manchester, Gabriela Garcia brings an unexpected humour to the role, finding layers of sarcasm, bitterness and contempt for Alec and his profession. In a way her continual goading of him and refusal to comply with his treatment of her is far more interesting than the emotional character history, as though that kind of inner strength can only come from horrible personal tragedy. Garcia nonetheless has a strong stage presence, unafraid to embrace the less attractive aspects of Gracie’s personality and making her feel rounded and realistic.
Alec is a more difficult role to fathom, lacking any independence or real agency of his own. A cipher both for the American state and Gracie’s struggles with herself, Alec is furnished with a loving family, traditional aspirations and a sense of duty but he never feels entirely credible. Devon Anderson does as much as he can with the role, navigating the constantly changing relationship with his prisoner, yet the most interesting thematic area, his own racial history and sense of connection to the concept of America is barely explored.
On Carla Goodman’s bare set and following McLeod’s stage directions that emphasise minimalism, place is created through Edward Lewis’ impressive sound design that adds plenty of vivid texture whether with the click of strip lighting in a public toilet or the sound of the endless roadside. But like the characters derailed on their journey to Mexico, McLeod’s drama loses its way, distracted by narrative twists that accidentally work against its political message.
Runs until: 3 August 2019 | Image: Marian Medic