Lunatic 19s, Finborough Theatre

Review by Melinda Haunton

For a play that starts and ends with the sound of the ocean, Lunatic 19s is one tight, claustrophobic package in between. Come for the righteously angry social justice message, stay for the lightness of touch with which it is delivered. Prepare to weep, jump and to hold your breath in agonies of sympathy. All in an unbroken ninety minute burst of two characters, pretty much onstage throughout. Bravo, Tegan McLeod. You have written one hell of a thing.

It is as advertised, a ‘deportational road trip’. We first meet Gracie (Gabriela Garcia) in hospital after a serious car crash, fixed neck brace and all. But that doesn’t stop ICE from tracking down her apparently risible crime (unpaid rental car fine), and using that as a reason to deport her from the USA, where she has lived since the age of five. Working to deliver ICE’s rules, and get Gracie over the border to Mexico, is Alec (Devon Anderson). Alec is straight up and down law enforcement, ex military, no apparent empathy, despite Gracie’s insistence he’s as Latinx as she is. Gracie is sparky as hell, never quite beaten down even though her list of life achievements and admirable active citizenship (worker, taxpayer, with health insurance) is rendered null by her lack of actual citizenship. Even her obvious physical injuries prompt no mercy – yes, that neck brace comes along for the trip. You need a truly committed pair of actors for this piece, and Lunatic 19s has that, along with tight direction by Jonathan Martin. Garcia is brilliant, strong, angry, snappishly funny, and convincing when the power dynamic shifts, as it must, to sustain the tension of the piece. Anderson has a tougher role – Alec is unsympathetic and initially lacks emotion, but he’s never an automaton, and it’s convincing as we see his composure crack and the human being beneath show. Gracie isn’t about to miss an opening like that.

The set is extremely simple, a blood-red blotchy backdrop and stage, which will grow dark resonances as Gracie’s story unfolds. It, the soundscape and the stripped down lighting do a decent job of keeping the attention on the characters, standing for hospital ward, road, gas station, detention centre, drug store and beach. The tedium of deportation (from Kentucky, of all non-border states Gracie’s family could have landed in when they emigrated to America), and the grim routine of days on the road, are adeptly shown, without boring the audience in turn. Bathroom breaks in particular are a recurring joke-slash-humiliation, as Gracie and Alec unwillingly get into a routine even for this.

But Gracie is a ‘chiquita de sangre’, a girl of blood (says her mother), and her destiny isn’t to go quietly. We see a lot of blood over this evening. Not buckets of gore, but smears, drips, spills, the red blood of both human beings underlying their current roles. It’s a powerful symbol, and a plot driver too, never overplayed.

I felt that over that blood, over Gracie’s misfortune and Alec’s righteous duty, there was maybe one layer too much of backstory. From haemophilia to opioid abuse to recurrent miscarriage to post-service PTSD, there were few tragedies that hadn’t touched our pairing. I was more convinced by their lighter bonding over sandwiches and screwdriver (to remove that wretched neck brace, which sometimes feels almost like a third character), than some of those layers of misfortune. Maybe the initial furious injustice of immigration law gets a little lost among the personal life stories Gracie and Alec share. But the emotional punch to which the piece is building does feel earned, and the tension in the theatre is very real, right up to the end

Lunatic 19s is at the Finborough Theatre until 3 August.

Tickets £18/£20

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