Love behind bars
The Road to Huntsville is a witty one-woman show about the women who write to men on death row. The play explores the intricacies of what some would describe as state homicide with an astounding amount of heart and humour.
The 75-minute play’s only character, Steph, is an obsessional writer fascinated by the stories of women who fall in love with and marry incarcerated men. Her infatuation no doubt reflects that of British playwright Stephanie Ridings – the author of this latest production by Luxembourg’s BGT English Theatre Company – who became interested in the topic from watching documentaries.
Steph, the 75-minute play’s only character, brimming with curiosity, starts the evening by telling the audience about the findings of her investigation. Interlacing her story with statistics about the death penalty and domestic abuse, she explains there is nothing abnormal about the women she studied.
“These women are writers, journalists, lawyers, teachers, nurses, civil servants, mothers, wives,” says Steph, the eccentric protagonist. For the most part, they are conventional women -- even if their dating methods say otherwise. And, as we eventually find out, they’re not altogether different from Steph.
Steph, played by Lina Peller, considers herself a normal person, despite her idiosyncrasies. She lives in her home in England, with a one-eyed cat and her often cynical husband, Stompy. There’s a pervading sense of loneliness about her. Stompy doesn’t listen to her, writes off her investigation as “yet another” childish fixation and snidely suggests that she up her dose of anti-depressants. We also find out that her brother, diagnosed with Asperger’s, has gone missing.
Peller, a recent drama graduate from the University of Munich, effortlessly glides through her performance, balancing vulnerability and fast-paced dialogue between different characters and several sets. The script treats its unusual subject with equal amounts of thoughtfulness and light-heartedness. Heady moments of tension are accompanied by the occasional joke or punchline.
When Steph starts writing to Johnny Demouchette, on death row in Texas for killing a grocery worker, she gets a little too close to her source. The line between reality and fantasy starts to fade, even if Steph insists all she is doing is research. Johnny isn’t like the other convicted men, she tells herself. As she paces around her home, she recites his eloquent, romantic letters.
And while she gets to know him better as somebody bearing little resemblance to the violent mass murderers portrayed in books she has read, the inevitable happens. Johnny’s execution date is announced for just a few weeks later. After much inner dialogue about her feelings, she flies out to the death penalty capital of the world: Huntsville, Texas.
Another admirable quality of the play – co-directed by Tony and Ferelith Kingston - besides Peller’s confident delivery and Ridings’ clever script, is Laura Burman’s set design. Composed of just a few tables, a blank wall and a projector, its minimalism engages the audience’s imagination. During different scenes, the stage transforms into a lecture hall, a small apartment, a car, a museum and a prison visitation booth.
As conversations between Steph and Johnny continue, the play begins to tackle some heavier themes. Steph sees protesters outside the prison, including Johnny’s sister, Sandy – a moment when the full impact of his death penalty hits home. She questions whether she has been acting like an “execution tourist”, visiting the gift shop in the Texas Prison Museum and going through the Write a Prisoner website as if swiping through Tinder profiles.
What Ridings highlights here, a point brilliantly brought to life by Peller, is our own morbid fascination with incarcerated people. There has probably never been a better time in pop culture for true crime shows or podcasts – an issue this play looks at from all sides, ethically and emotionally.
The Road to Huntsville is no longer showing.