From the very first moment, the first words, you know something is bubbling beneath this surface.
A solitary man, dressed for work in a field, is moving slowly, building a stone wall, stone by stone. The three foot high wall is several winding yards long, but unfinished, ready for the rest of the stones. The man wipes sweat from his brow as he stops his work.
"When you look at the wall," he says, "the danger is that you see a stone on the bottom layer and think: if only I laid that differently, the whole wall would have been straighter. That’s the danger. Wondering."
From that very moment, you know that "American Song," the Janna Murray-Smith world premiere at the Milwaukee Rep, is going to be a serious search for an answer to a troubling question.
With yet another stunning one-man performance in a string of stunning one-man performances, James DeVita takes Murray-Smith’s journey and invites an audience to come along for what is surely going to be a ride of a life.
Andy is at work building the wall, rock by rock, in a rural field and his subject for us is his life.
It was in third grade that he met Amy, who would become his wife and the mother of their child, Robbie. Some of his stories are funny, like the first time he made love to Amy – in the back seat of a Yugo.
"A Yugo is no encouragement to seduction," he says. "We shoulda won a prize."
From the time they were married, they led a charmed life: a good job for Andy, a move to New York for graduate school in art history for Amy while Andy cared for the infant Robbie. It was a profound bonding for father and child.
It is a time for raising a child, but it is also a time for Andy’s education. He learns that is not the big things that make a life.
"It’s that unexpected little moment sitting on the grass in spring with a bad take-out coffee and a half eaten donut and the kid looking up at you and you catching his eye and thinking: This is how the whole damn thing works," he notes. "How the universe keeps chugging along, for Chrissake."
Andy takes us through the unwelcome stay in New York, the flight from the big city to their home, the purchase of the perfect house, his steady and rapid rise up the corporate ladder to a lofty perch, all while three people are lovers and the loved.
One day, while returning from a job in a park with little Robbie wobbling along on his tiny bike, someone tries to mug Amy. She kicks the knife out of his hands and runs home with Robbie in her arms. The young child is worried, as only a child can worry, about the incident and Andy spends hours trying to assure him it is just one moment in his life and that fear should be left behind.
You can almost feel the audience thinking that this is the incident that Andy is so full of wonder about that he is building his wall.
But no, there is something else coming along; we know it.
Andy is moving past his little world into a man who feels engaged with the larger world around him. He has no politics, except to have no politics. He is an equal opportunity friend. He has friends who own guns and friends who think gun ownership is the deadliest sin of all.
His child is having nightmares, and Andy buys a small handgun. He puts the gun in the back of his nightstand and the ammunition in the back of a closet.
The years pass and his son growing into a wonderful young boy. Smart and respectful, kind and clever. He climbed into bed to sleep with his parents.
But young boys turn into young men, teenagers. And things change. A new tension seeps into the house and things are ... different. There are meals that pass in two handed conversation between mother and father with nary a sound from the third member of this tribe.
And then, crazily, comes the brief affair with co-worker Caroline Cahill. A friend spots Caroline and Andy step out of a hotel elevator, with wet hair. She tells Amy. Amy confronts Andy, and there is a tear in the fabric of their lives.
Surely, this is what Andy has been wondering about. Why did all of this happen.
Not yet, however.
Two weeks after the affair ends, Caroline bursts into a conference room at work in the middle of a meeting. She is holding a gun. People dive for cover. She shoots at Andy. One misses. The other grazes his shoulder. She is collared, tried and convicted.
This fearful moment must be the event that has caused Andy such wonder. Surely that must be it.
But no, there is more to come. There is one more thing to come.
It is the moment, the moment after Robbie has finished high school.
The moment he walks into the school with his friend Jack. They carry an arsenal. The two of them walk down the halls, firing randomly. Nine children killed. Twenty-seven injured. Robbie fired a shot into Jack’s head and then he killed himself.
This is what Andy wonders about., How could this happen? They did everything right. They raised a good child. A child in whom they had pride.
How can Andy possibly face this, deal with this horror? He tries to fine some refuge in memory:
"...one night when he was nine or ten and I went into his bedroom to kiss him goodnight and I lay down and gave him a hug and I said: What was the best thing that happened today and he said: This. And I did love him. He was loved well. I never saw a monster. I saw my son."
There is no refuge, no hiding from this awful truth. There is only the end of lives. Robbie’s life. Amy’s life. And Andy’s life. It is not our life. This life belongs to Andy.
And so he builds a wall.
"American Song" runs through April 10 and information on showtimes and tickets is available here.
Production Credits: Director, Mark Clements; Scenic Designer, Daniel Conway, Costume Designer, Leslie Vaglica; Lighting Designer, Jason Fassl; Sound Designer,m Barry G. Funderburg; Projections Designer, Jared Mezzocchi; Dramaturg, Brent Hazelton; Dialect Coach, Jill Walmsley Zager; Casting Director JC Clementz; Stage Manager, Sarah Deming-Henes.
With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.
He's seen Milwaukee grow, suffer pangs of growth, strive for success and has been involved in many efforts to both shape and re-shape the city. He's a happy man, now that he's quit playing golf, and enjoys music, his children and grandchildren and the myriad of sports in this state. He loves great food and hates bullies and people who think they are smarter than everyone else.
This whole Internet thing continues to baffle him, but he's willing to play the game as long as OnMilwaukee.com keeps lending him a helping hand. He is constantly amazed that just a few dedicated people can provide so much news and information to a hungry public.
Despite some opinions to the contrary, Dave likes most stuff. But he is a skeptic who constantly wonders about the world around him. So many questions, so few answers.