Part drama, part documentary, part Ted Talk, Stephanie Ridings’ The Road To Huntsville is a meticulously written piece that spans a powerful and witty dramatic arc. Performed by Lina Peller and directed with aplomb by Ferelith and Tony Kingston, the one-woman show packs a punch and leaves its audience reflecting on the abhorrence of the death penalty and the vulnerability of the emotionally damaged.
Peller, for all intents and purposes alone on stage for the show’s 75-minute running time, plays Steph, a writer whose latest project involves research on women who fall in love with inmates on death row. In a quick-fire opening sequence, we see how she gets stuck in, and sucked in, to her subject. We are awe-struck by the execution statistics Steph reads out from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, the portrayals of the death-row monsters and the women who fall for them, including best-selling author Danielle Steele. We understand why a writer would find this subject fascinating and packed with potential.
But there is more to Steph than her writing. She is in a seemingly desolate relationship with a man she refers to only as Stompy. Her brother is diagnosed with Asperger’s and she mentions that she is also on medication. And she dotes on her one-eyed cat. In the hands of Peller and the directors, Steph is sympathetic and intelligent, strong and vulnerable as she paces about her home in England--the minimal set design by Laura Burman is brilliantly adaptable--arguing with Stompy, trying to assuage her mother as she wrestles openly with the decision she is about to make.
Even though she has recognised that the death row inmates who start romantic relationships with women are nearly all master manipulators, she plans to fly to Texas and visit Johnny, the death-row inmate with whom she has been corresponding. She might even marry him, you know, in the name of research. Still, Steph has this nagging doubt. Should she really crash into other people’s lives?
Time and time again, Ridings plays with her audience’s emotions. We readily laugh at the caricatures she draws, then get a quick slap about the face as she reminds us that these are human beings who perhaps just made one bad decision and are being killed by the state in retaliation. Or she employs sharply-timed one-liners and biting satire when the story is in danger of becoming too emotionally fraught or maudlin.
It is a dauntless and beautifully poised performance from Peller, whose combination of strong-willed charisma and doe-eyed sensitivity allows her to give Steph the requisite authenticity. She fully engages the audience, drawing us into the story and her research. And when conversing with Stompy or Johnny she has the presence to make us forget that this is a one-woman show. It is a test of stamina for any actress, but Peller confidently rides the rollercoaster of emotions right up until the play’s devastating but hopeful conclusion.
The BGT production of The Road To Huntsville is on at Neimënster on Tuesday 8 and Wednesday 9 June at 8pm.