Friday, March 6, 2020

American Song

Image: Rob Blackburn Photography and Work Art Life Studios

American Song by Joanna Murray-Smith. Presented by Red Stitch Actors’ Theatre & Critical Stages at The Q, Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, March 5-7, 2020.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
March 5

Director: Tom Healey
Performed by: Joe Petruzzi
Set & Costume Design: Darryl Cordell
Lighting Design: Bronwyn Pringle
Composer & Sound Designer: Patrick Cronin

Joe Petruzzi, as Andy – a very much middle American who is well educated but is not a registered member of any political party – quietly tells us over 90 minutes his personal story as a family man living in a culture where having the right, and feeling the need, to protect his wife and son is a matter of practical reality.

He is building a dry-stone wall as he speaks, seeking in his own life and in the spirit of being American the strength of purpose represented in the larger foundation stones and the skill of finding and placing the smaller and often oddly-shaped higher layer stones in just the right way, ready for the final top layer of regularly shaped and evenly thin stones which complete a perfect wall which, he says, should last another 300 years.

By then, he expects, some minor movement in the weighty rocks may cause a need for a little adjustment, but essentially the wall is not so much a dividing force (as we might interpret the famous poem Mending Wall by the American Robert Frost), but a force for strength and stability in life.

Joanna Murray-Smith has written a powerful study of this American man, perhaps taking a risk as an Australian interrogating American culture.  Petruzzi’s performance (he graduated from Australia’s National Institute of Dramatic Art and later trained in the HB New York studios) creates the illusion that this is a thoroughly American life on stage before us.

The reality of his and his family’s life, which as he says proves that we all have to accept that the past and the future do not exist – only the present – is terrifying because we can never know what will happen to us next.  Nothing like that solid, so carefully constructed wall that will stand steady for 300 years.

The strength of this play, and particularly in Joe Petruzzo’s effective under-played tour-de-force performance, lies in the emotional impact on us – watching him build and waiting to see the next piece fall into place, or not, in his life story.  We cannot help but feel empathy and sorrow, as much as joy and satisfaction as each stone materialises.

The simple open sky backdrop allows us to focus on the wall and Andy’s concentrated movement, while the American songs we hear to begin – which establish place and time for us – fade into a faint but somehow unnerving soundscape.  Like the wall visually, it is the story which stands out in our listening.

Afterwards, we may reflect on our own experiences as family members, and perhaps wonder if our culture gives us the chance for a little more stability than the American – or not.

This is a sensitive and thoughtful work by Murray-Smith and should not be missed.

Though finishing very shortly at Queanbeyan, you may be able to catch it on tour at

5-7 March: Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre

10 March: Warrnambool, Lighthouse Theatre

12 March: Moonee Ponds, Clocktower Centre

14 March: Dandenong, Drum Theatre

18 March: Frankston, Frankston Arts Centre, The Cube

20-21 March: Brisbane, QUT Gardens Theatre

26-28 March: Sydney, Glen Street Theatre