American Gothic, the best-known painting by the Thirties realist Grant Wood, is a dubious piece of art: iconic, certainly, but iconic of what? Is the portrait of the hatchet-faced Iowan farmer with the pitchfork and the strait-laced wife a hymn to the steadfast qualities of the Midwest, or a satire on its Puritan values? And why is the farmer so much older than his wife? The models for the picture, Grant's sister Nan and his dentist, Byron, were not married, did not meet and were not painted in front of the house. Embarrassed by the age gap, Nan Wood insisted it was not a portrait of a husband and wife at all, but of a father and daughter.
This ambiguity seems to have inspired Anthony Weigh in his first full-length play, receiving its European premiere at the ever-uncomfortable Bush. 2,000 Feet Away begins and ends with the painting and the certainty that within every respectable person is a mind full of dirty secrets. Maybe the farmer in the portrait is a paedophile? Eighty years on, the town of Eldon, Iowa, location of the white wooden house in the painting, is in the grip of paedo-noia, exacerbated by a version of Jessica's Law that makes it illegal for any released child molester to live within 2,000 feet of a school.
It opens with the schoolteacher, AG, played with a compelling mixture of creepiness and sympathy by Ian Hart, "grooming" one of his charges while on a trip to Chicago to see American Gothic. Nothing much happens, but the boy (an excellent cameo by Joe Ashton the night I went) cries for help. The next scene appears to be a flashback to the Thirties, for sitting at a table are Nan and Byron in full Puritan kit. In fact, it is a fast-forward to the present: the pair are a couple who have dressed up for a local festival and have given lodging to their son AG, presumably now having served his sentence. They are visited by a deputy sheriff (Joseph Fiennes doing a Nick Cage impression) whose regretful task it is to evict AG because his parents' house is near a childcare facility.
From here on AG and the deputy form an increasingly unhealthy bond during the play's 90 minutes, hatred and shame (Hart's legs do an involuntary dance under a table at a moment of stress) turning to complicity. They end up in a motel whose sole occupants appear to be paedophiles, presumably because it is in the middle of nowhere. Its remoteness from the under-aged population of Eldon is not, however, enough to prevent it being burned down in a conflagration of biblical proportions, presumably by a mob led by descendants of the fictional Nan and Byron. The play ends up back at the Chicago art gallery. A little girl passes, but by now AG is more interested in grooming the deputy.
Frankly, I was looking for a modern-day version of The Crucible, a satire on paedophile hysteria and our oversexualised culture. But Weigh, unlike Miller, believes in witches, and although we see no sexual assault take place, the atmosphere is dense with suggestion and innuendo. The stench and stain of corruption are everywhere: Fiennes's police shirt grows a large stain over his heart from a pen leak; there is shit and blood on a mattress in the motel, a finger bleeds from a glass cut; characters repeatedly talk of puking (without ever quite doing so). The motel manager dreams of opening a "hot tub" establishment and the deputy asks if she does not fear all that dead skin milling around in the warm water.
As you would expect from the sell-out starry cast, even if economy requires several doubled-up roles, it is a finely performed evening. The spare dialogue of half-finished sentences seems spot on. But Weigh wants it both ways: to criticise the paranoia that causes children to become experts in paedophilia even before they hit puberty, and to claim we are all paedophiles deep down. AG asks the deputy how young his fantasy women are: 15, 14, 13? I don't know about Weigh, but my fantasies have always concerned much older women, even when I was 13. The pseudo-insight that we are all paedos at heart represents no progress at all on that cliché of Seventies feminism - that all men are rapists. This well-made play is about as truthful as American Gothic itself.
Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the Times
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