A message to a great actor: Jim DeVita in the one-man play “American Song”

Jim DeVita, as a devastated father of a dead son from a terrorist gun massacre, in the world premiere of Joanna Murray-Smith’s one-man play “American Song,” at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. Photo courtesy jsonline.com

I decided to post the e-mail message below, which I sent to actor Jim DeVita today, even though the brilliant one-man play American Song, which he delivered the world premiere of at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, has closed.

I managed to get to the end of the play’s run, but I still wanted to offer my appreciation to him, and for those who may have an opportunity to see the play, and to see DeVita perhaps performing American Song elsewhere, or in other roles with Milwaukee theater companies, or in his long-time position as a lead company actor for American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wisconsin.
Anywhere you see him, you will probably understand why The New Yorker critic Terry Teachout called him “America’s greatest classical actor.”

But in this case, DeVita played the heart and stone-burdened Andy, in an overwhelmingly up-to-the-minute play by Joanna Marie-Smith, and directed by The Rep’s artistic director Mark Clements. 1

The play’s title references Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, wherein the poet likens America to a song and its citizens as potentially a chorus, just as he celebrates American individualism, throughout the “Grass” collection, most famously in the poem “Song of Myself.”

The new play American Song, challenges Whitman’s optimism for an American populace singing in harmony. In fact, playwright Murray-Smith isolates one individual with almost cold-blooded scrutiny.

A father named Andy is hand-building a stone wall on his property while he struggles to come to grips with the harsh, devastating reality of his son’s recent death. The spectral back story is a terrorist gun massacre in the son’s school, which left nine people dead including his son and many injured, an all-too-familiar dirge of a song today. One wonders how Whitman would’ve responded to this numbing American refrain.

I will say no more about the story, only to add that the play’s scrutiny allows us to experience and feel the depth and array of feelings of this human being, an every man with warm blood and a lacerated heart.
In my message, I do try to express some appreciation of the power of the play and especially of DeVita’s astonishing performance.

Hey Jim,

I want you to know that my girlfriend Ann and I finally caught the last Sunday matinee performance of American Song. We were in the balcony in the middle. Both of us were greatly impressed by the play, and engrossed and moved by your performance.

Ann said that she felt on the verge of tears frequently. This is a tribute to you, and your uncanny ability — often in mid-set sentence — to shift into an emotionally charged tone. The audience senses, in the bat of an eyelash, the increased pressure and weight of that nuanced, yet charged, moment. The cumulative effect is draining yet quietly exhilarating.
Yet, the 90 minutes flew by with only you, and the text and stage direction, to sustain their flow and power.
I can think of very few actors who have such skills as yours, in this regard. You also commanded the narrative flow beautifully.
And I love the metaphor of you building the stone wall, it’s rhythm and symbolism, which is rich and open to interpretation.
For me, perhaps you are building a wall around your heart, to protect it. Of course, we never see you complete it because that is perhaps a lifelong project, at least internally, which adds to the play’s poignance and the footprints of personal history, your stone-hauling and pacing back and forth  — and talking to the sky in confounded wonder and anger.
The latter act evokes, for me, King Lear, before he loses it, and Melville’s “quarrel with God.” You recall, Melville also lost his oldest son, age 18, to a gun death, most likely suicide.
Thank you for an indelible experience,
Kevin Lynch
p.s,. Stay in touch regarding your performance and writing exploits, especially regarding Melville. Hi to Brenda.
_____________
1. Milwaukee Rep director Mark Clements approached playwright Joanna Murray-Scott about writing this play for the rep in 2012, “not too long before America and the world was shocked to its core by the fatal shootings of 20 children between the ages of six and seven, along with six other adult staff members, at the Sandy Hook elementary school in Connecticut., The director writes in his program notes to American song.”
Murray-Scott is an Australian playwright and novelist. Among her plays are Honour and Rapture, which both won the Victorian Premier’s literary award for best play.

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