American Song is a well-written play. Star James DeVita proves once again he’s a master of the one-man show, and the Milwaukee Rep deserves credit for taking a chance on this world-premiere work, which forces its audience to consider two of the greatest issues facing 21st-century society: rampant gun violence and school shootings.
For much of the audience — perhaps most of it — that will be enough. If so, then you should stop here and pick up tickets before someone else snatches them.
It was not enough for me.
For 80 minutes, DeVita portrays a bereaved father, Andy. He’s in the process of building a stone wall on his property as he tells the audience about the moments in his life leading up to the day his beloved son walked into his high school and committed an unthinkable act of violence. It’s a play the company promises will be “moving and provocative,” sparking conversation among audience members and forcing them to question the beliefs they walked in with.
Walking out, I had several questions, but they all shared the same sentiment: Why?
Why did talented Australian playwright Joanna Murray-Smith — writer of Bombshells, which ran at the Rep during artistic director Mark Clements’ first year with the company — present us with this particular story, and this story alone? There’s a subtle twist to DeVita playing the parent of a gunman rather than a victim, but that choice loses its potency after we’ve spent an hour listening to Andy flip through memories from the family scrapbook, putting off the elephant in the room. Andy’s story is powerful and sad, but is it more so than the stories of his son’s victims? Should his voice be the only one we hear?
Why, if this is the voice Murray-Smith and director Clements have chosen to give us, have they chosen one with nothing more to offer than uncertainty and contradiction?
To be clear: I see nothing wrong with Andy having uncertain, contradictory feelings about his son’s actions. Such a response makes perfect sense for a grieving father, and DeVita balances those conflicting emotions with laser-tight efficacy.
But I wonder why the script forces him into doing so at all. I understand the impulse to make Andy an everyman with no extreme, a man with whom any viewer can identify. He’s not a religious man, but he calls it human nature to suspect a post-life moral reckoning; he has liberal and conservative friends; he buys a gun after his wife is mugged but buries it in the yard after a coworker’s wife he’s sleeping with tries to shoot him and her husband at the office. Unfortunately, making Andy unsure of anything does not challenge us to reconsider our beliefs — it simply unsettles us for having any.
Much of the play revolves around Andy’s story before the shooting. Murray-Smith’s narrative seems constructed around a singular need: to show us that the way you think and feel about your children is unlike how you think or feel about anyone else. This is why Andy still loves his son, the school shooter; this is why Andy is so unconcerned about his son, whom he should have intuitively known needed help. But parents in the audience know this already, and those without children cannot understand this feeling as more than theory.
Why does the story of a life that begins with so much hope and ends with so much sorrow compel me to neither smile nor cry?
Why did the opening night “Act II” talkback come off so didactic? Inviting local community leaders to comment on the play is a good idea, but not if it’s done as haphazardly as the effort I saw, in which a representative from the Zeidler Center stepped on stage practically as soon as DeVita stepped off. The wise words of that night’s guest, MPS superintendent Darienne Driver, were undercut by the shallowness of “Act II’s” execution.
How did a play that is objectively good, with perhaps the best cast and crew possible, on an issue I’m extremely passionate about, leave me so cold and unfeeling?
I don’t have the answer after seeing this play — which may, I suppose, be the Rep’s point.
School shootings are nothing but whys. “Why did they do it?” “Why was no one able to catch this before it was too late?” “Why can’t our politicians and civic leaders stop the violence?”
The problem is we already know how to ask these questions. So a production that tackles these issues needs to do more than simply ask them again.
It is an undeniably good thing to spend 80 minutes thinking about being a parent in a dangerous world, or how we can stop violence from hurting those we love. And it’s better to spend 80 minutes at American Song than not think about those things at all.
But just thinking about it isn’t enough. If those 80 minutes don’t motivate you to do anything once they’re over — except keep asking that same old “why?” — then what’s the point?
The Milwaukee Rep’s production of American Song runs through April 10 in the Quadracci Powerhouse, at 108 E. Wells St. Tickets start at $20. Visit milwaukeerep.com for more details.