Gangway in association with Neil McPherson for the Finborough Theatre
In the darkness, a woman is counting. She stops at 18; 19 we discover is a number that recurs in her life and, though we don’t learn how it gains its particular significance, it gives the play its title. This is a woman trying to decide where she is, not just in place but in time—what is it she is remembering and was it before or after?
It is a play that seems very much in the present but looks back in memory, a play that is sometimes graphically realistic though presented in an abstract setting.
Subtitled “A Deportational Road Trip”, it is the account of a Chicana woman who is pulled from a hospital bed in Kentucky and bundled into the back of a windowless van to be deposited on the Mexican border.
It doesn’t matter that she came to the US as a tot and has lived there paying her taxes and marrying in the US. The legislation says that if an illegal immigrant breaks the law they get deported. The authorities have discovered a past charge of not returning a rental car on time and not paying the following fine. Now there is this guy ordering her out despite the fact that she is recovering from a near fatal accident and has her head in a weird contraption to stop her from moving it.
That head and neck brace may be symbolic and some of the writing, especially towards the end of the play, suggests extra layers are intended but the core of the play lies in the relations between patient Gracie and her Latino guard Alec, also of Mexican stock and disadvantaged but safely a US citizen.
It Is partly a prisoner-guard story, following a familiar pattern that leads to a kind of bonding, but more importantly a picture of the heartlessness with which the law operates and the division it imposes between people. As the pair spend time together, they also begin to share some of their own stories, their past pains and hardships.
Alec is employed by ICE (US Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and he needs the job. When Gracie wryly asks if he knows what the acronym stands for, he says “Indiscriminate, Callous, Evil.” Her version is “Indiscriminate, Cunty Ethnic-Cleansers”.
Devon Anderson’s Alec is a believable portrait of a guy trying to play by the rulebook and protect his own back, despite compassionate feeling.
Gabriela García doesn’t play Gracie for sympathy; the character’s situation and her history of failed partnerships, miscarriages ensure she gets enough of that. Vocally she gives her a hard edge, not a woman you’d want to be on the opposite side in an argument. That helps emphasise Alec’s predicament. Indeed, under pressure, she’s a woman who can strike out vindictively.
Jonathan Martin’s production concentrates, very successfully, on the relations between the two of them. Although the action is continually changing from inside the van to the places they stop at—a drive in MacDonald’s, a yard where other prisoners wait to be picked up, a gas station toilet, the ocean—he relies on the text or the action to provide information.
Instead, Carla Goodman’s design provides a simple setting of a blood-red floor and backing, the colour of Gracie’s haemophilia, her miscarriages and the bleeding where 19 screws bite into her head.
It is a stark background that emphasises painful images under Kevin Treacy’s chiaroscuro lighting, images that outbalance the humanity of the pair’s more personal dialogue. Handcuffed Gracie propped on the floor taking bites from a wrap held in front of her, violently twitching in a fit that hammers her brace against the hard truck surfaces or, humiliating for both of them and later strangely compassionate: Alec pulling down handcuffed Gracie’s pants when she goes to the toilet.
Lunatic 19's is a painfully topical reminder of the problems produced by immigration and the inhumanly blunt way they are being dealt with, in this case in the USA, but it's a worldwide problem.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton