6/5/2020 PRISON MONOLOGUES, PART I Merely Players (Live Stream)
DAMAGES AND CONSEQUENCES
(Bias Alert: I am friends with playwright/director Daniel Guyton and actors Kate Guyton and Peg Thon and tend to view their work through approval-tinted glasses)
Is there a better format for “Monologue” plays than Zoom streaming? Based on last night’s stream of Daniel Guyton’s Prison Monologues, Part I, I would opine a definitive “No.” A combination of brilliant writing, from-the-gut performance, and beautifully minimalistic (laptop) camera work made this collection a wrenchingly beautiful experience.
Meet four women, all (perhaps) convicted killers, each in a blandly institutional setting talking directly to us. (“We” are interviewers, interrogators, visitors, or fellow prisoners.) They really have nothing in common, other than the fact they are in prison. Each has a story to tell, and these stories are the background and soul of this play.
In “The Sins of Rebethany Chastain,” Kate Guyton gives a starkly funny portrait of a too-young-for-adult-prison woman (the playwright describes her as 19, which means she was 17 when she committed her crime). Approaching (but never falling into) the trap pf “Southern Trailer Trash” cliché, Rebethany is an unschooled, unsophisticated naïf, whose unfortunate mistake was to leave a hose running after cleaning her bicycle, causing her hilltop trailer home to avalanche away in a landslide (floating down the hill “like a gorgonzola” – you
know, those boats hat ply the canals of Venice); the runaway single-wide crashes into a beauty salon, causing the death of Mother and the permanent crippling of Aunt (the Rebecca and Bethany whose names she bears). At Mother’s funeral, no one forgives the teenager for the debacle, and the mother of her arch-nemesis goes one taunt too far (“you’re gonna get what you deserve!”), leading to a literal act of divine payback. Now she faces forty years of imprisonment but manages to keep her childlike outlook on life.
In “Hate Male,” Jade Fernandez is an angry woman, sporting bruises from too many fights, alternatively seducing and challenging us with her disdain for men in general. A victim of child sexual assault from seemingly everyone in her life, she ultimately murdered Santa Claus, who smelled and sounded just like her abusive uncle. A brutal post-murder act to prevent him from “seeing Jesus” is nicely echoed in a startle-scare ending that made me jump right out of my skin, or at least my comfy office chair.
In “January’s Alibi,” Tanya Freeman is an ex-addict, married to a concert pianist. She was good enough for marriage but not good enough to meet his upper class family, and because of her stint in rehab, when the inevitable divorce came, custody of their son Allegro went to Daddy, a man with demons of his own, and cruelty to spare. When Daddy is shot dead, January insists the trigger was pulled by four-year old Allegro. And she just might not be lying.
Finally, in “Say Hi to Agnes for Me,” Peg Thon is a lifer, a woman arrested after a series of Manson-esque cruelties 50 or so years ago, expecting to end her life behind bars. Funny and profane, she comes across as the “older wise woman showing the ropes” to a young new prisoner, but it doesn’t take long for us to realize she is an apex predator, asserting her authority, and making us tremble for our future.
These are all damaged women, all having suffered unimaginable abuse at the hands of men and family, all reacting with violence, which, to be honest, is really all they know, all they have in their “coping toolbox.” Their criminal acts can be seen as the consequences of this abuse, this damage. True, we learn precious little of Peg Thon’s life before prison other than “bad friends” and “Manson wannabes,” but she has definitely been a victim of abusive guards after her imprisonment.
And these four actresses use a full toolbox of emotion and depth to worm their insidious way into our sympathies. Ms. Guyton (who previously proved to be an outstanding monologist with Thus Spoke the Mockingbird) perfectly captures Rebethanny’s naivety and “what else could I do?” simplicity, showing the character to be a natural storyteller and blithely spewing her many spoonerisms and “close-but-no-cigar” vocabulary. Ms. Freeman is angry and bold and self-deprecating and so assured of her innocence (?), that her actual guilt remains nebulous and debatable. Ms. Thon goes so far under the skin of her nameless character that her gradual revelations are all surprisingly expected and natural. Even Ms. Fernandez, who spends most of her monologue angry and railing at us, cannot hide the pain and disappointment that seem permanently etched on her face
Each actress “owns” her space, treating the camera like a character, making every move significant, every gesture a story-enhancing embellishment.
And, more to the point, the small laptop cameras that zoom these stories to us are able to capture every nuance, every thought as it strikes, even the few moments of self-revelatory clarity.
Mr. Guyton’s writing is incredibly assured and effective. So many lines are laugh out loud funny and horrifying at the same time. A one point, January, a confirmed non-vegetarian (unlike her late unlamented husband) wonders “If God didn’t want us to eat animals, why did he make them out of meat?” a line that both tickles the funny bone and cleverly reveals how her mind actually works. These characters spring from the page, fully formed, fully human, fully frightening in their innocent fall into guilt.
Yes, there will be a “Part II” with male prisoners, and, if it is half as good as Part I, it will be an artistic success and a theatrical event. And, though nothing will ever truly replace an in-person interaction with his characters, I suspect Mr. Guyton would be well-served to offer his next stable of monologues on a Zoom platform.
Congratulations on a beautiful event and an enthralling descent into the terrifying wellspring of the female soul.
-- Brad Rudy ( @bk_rudy #MerelyWriters #MerelyPlayers #PrisonMonologuesI)
Note: A recording of this performance is available on VIMEO at https://vimeo.com/426774079
This was originally presented to support Georgia NAACP, and donations may still (and always) be made at https://secure.actblue.com/donate/georgia-naacp-1