The title of Anthony Weigh’s debut play refers to a state law in Iowa that prevents sex offenders from living near any place where children might gather: parks, playgrounds and, of course, schools. They must maintain a distance of 2,000 feet from all these places.
In the small town of Eldon, Iowa, an ineffectual deputy fond of food and uncomfortable with any sort of conflict is charged with evicting these men from their homes, and moving them on, keeping the town’s children ‘safe’. The question is to where to put them? There are few places that aren’t near a school or nursery or playground, so these men are herded off to tatty motels on the edge of town, transient, nowhere places where they live a kind of frozen non-life surrounded by shattered glass from brick-bust windows, scattering indoors like startled animals whenever the young girl from the nearby farm comes to wait at the adjacent bus stop.
We first see AG in the Chicago Institute of Art where he is looking at Grant Wood’s iconic painting American Gothic with a young boy beside him. The next thing we know AG is back in Eldon, his home town and the place that inspired that famous image, the neat white house in the painting now a tourist attraction and the subject of a local festival. The play maintains a pleasing level of ambiguity into what AG actually did. I’m not like those others, he later pleads. They disgust me too. But it leaves the question of how much to invest in this statement up to the audience.
Weigh’s satirical play is good at changing gears, at making the audience gasp. It makes you think about the futility of such a law, of the difficulty in enforcing it, and the pointlessness of condemning these men to an empty existence on the edge of society those who can’t be placed in motels spend their nights in the police station or end up sleeping in their cars but then it reminds you quite bluntly of what some of them are capable of (one motel-dweller still receives perfumed missives from a young girl, a contract over what they can and cannot do in bed).
Though at times it meanders, the play contains one particularly charged scene, an incredibly tense encounter between the deputy and a precocious pre-teen girl. She has developed an obsession with these men and has the police handouts pinned to her bedroom wall. The girl, played with astonishing confidence by Miranda Princi, baffles the deputy with her semi-formed sexuality and cocky comebacks, while he stands there sweating, almost tearful, practically begging her to take an interest in her Barbies and her My Little Pony instead of these ugly mug-shots. If in the end the play seems muddled in what it wants to say about the culture of paranoia surrounding paedophilia, well, it is hardly a simple issue to pin down.
Josie Rourke’s production benefits from a very strong cast. Ian Hart, being Ian Hart, could act any role one could throw at him and things are no different here; his scrub-faced, strangely age-less AG is both sympathetic and unnerving. Joseph Fiennes looks far less comfortable in his role as the troubled deputy. It’s not a bad performance, far from it, but he seems totally miscast. As written his character is something of a klutz, kind of cow-like, a man who chews over his words, and whose thoughts take their time in coming into focus. He is forever munching on something, on pancakes, on burgers, on doughnuts, and sometimes rescues half dead animals from the side of the road. Fiennes seems slightly adrift as this schlubby, bumbling man, who eventually comes to see himself as a pied-piper figure, destined to lead these men away from his hometown.
Phyllis Logan is plausibly distraught as AG’s mother and the performance of the young girl, is as I said, startlingly good. Lucy Osbourne’s set, all blues and browns, is very evocative, the rust tinged metal triggering thoughts of a deeper social corrosion.