Reviewed by Carlos Stafford The Model Critic
The Fresh Fruit Festival presented a peach of a play this week, fittingly at the Cherry Lane Theater, in the Big Apple.
7 Miles From Prison written and acted in a solo performance by David L. Ray portends a dark, gothic tale from the rural South–forbidden sex, Southern Baptist values, prison riots, men in chains. In essence, this autobiography traces Shane’s youthful struggle with being gay in a seemingly hostile environment. Seems like the table is set for an ominous, updated psychological lynching.
But surprisingly, what we get is mostly hagiography, not mayhem. Dressed in prison garb, as the leitmotiv, we are introduced to fine-tuned memories of pivotal characters from Shane’s past: Mr Timmes, a stern mentor, deacon-like character from church; Randal, his “recuperative therapist” from Savannah, who comically is gay himself and tries to seduce Shane; Bill, his grandpa, a surface racist, but as Shane insightfully sees, a man who has deeper waters of understanding. These figures, and others, his loving mother, his sweet and supportive grandmother, his partner-in-crime brother, his father who accepts Shane as ok in his final hours, all allies.
We find Shane, for all implied fear and isolation, with friends, winning scripture reading contests, joking with the family, successful, even being voted best actor at his high school. He copes, is well-balanced and popular.
Yes, its a story about growing up gay, and all its complexities, but it plays out to be more than that. At heart, it’s a story mainly about love and understanding, of people confronted with change, and living with grace and compassion–sort of a small modern day version of “Our Town,” Southern style.
So, the 7 Miles From Prison image isn’t exactly what it purports to be. Not his father’s workplace, the real prison, but the “prison” of The Azelea Baptist Church Shane attended as a child. But finally, this argument isn’t strong enough to believe from what we get from the play. Although Shane courageously faces his dilemma, he is quiet and accepting.
David L. Ray writes in a subtle manner, never overwrought or indulgent–more beautifully understated. He loves his characters, and really has no axes to grind, which is refreshing. Although he allows his audience to read between the lines, the characters, for the most part, are portrayed with genuine respect, acceptance, and humor.
He wears his prison garb, as we all wear ours, but for Shane, luckily he is freed by those around him. We now know he is ok, and will always be ok.