Review: "Solitary" Centers the Humanity of the Dehumanized


Written and directed by Seán Griffin

Presented at UNDER St. Marks

94 St. Marks Place, Manhattan, NYC

April 3-20, 2024

It is not controversial to assert that isolation is mentally and physically unhealthy for human beings. And while representatives of the carceral state may insist that isolation of individuals in the form of solitary confinement is a necessary tool, others more accurately view is as at best an injurious punishment and at worst, state-enacted torture (see Solitary Watch for reporting and other resources on this matter, as well as the ACLU on prisoners' rights more broadly). While organizations such as Social Workers & Allies Against Solitary Confinement are working to end this inhumane practice, it remains in widespread use across the United States. Seán Griffin's short play Solitary approaches the issue through a 30-minute real-time snapshot of one man in the midst of a stint in the eponymous confinement. Solitary is part of the 2024 New York City Fringe Festival, which includes 46 plays across multiple venues and gives 100% of ticket sales to the artists.

Casimir Gregory plays an incarcerated man named Sammy on a stage otherwise occupied only by a pallet adorned with industrial gray bedding. When the show begins, Sammy is attempting to make it to the next milestone in his day, dinner, distracting himself with song lyrics. Dinner also means the arrival of another distraction, a mouse whom Sammy has named Marcel. Marcel provides Sammy with someone to talk to, along with the similarly important rationalization that he isn't actually talking to himself, in exchange for some crumbs. Marcel, however, hasn't yet appeared as usual, and still doesn't even when Sammy offers to share more of his food than usual even though he doesn't get enough in the first place.

Thoughts of better meals in better days provide a segue to us learning some things about Sammy's family and school experience. The latter evokes, even if it does not directly discuss, the school-to-prison pipeline, and Sammy also makes some comparisons between colleges and prisons that Michel Foucault would have appreciated. As the show goes on, we also learn that Sammy worries both about what will happen outside the prison while he is in solitary and what will happen when he gets out of prison, and, late in the show, he incisively plays on the multiple meanings of "sentence" and "serving." What we don't learn is why Sammy was imprisoned or placed in solitary–because ultimately it doesn't matter, since it doesn't change the cruelty and damage inherent in the practice (as in American incarceration generally). Gregory renders Sammy's struggles to maintain composure and control, including his efforts to manufacture connection, in a compelling and multidimensional performance, accompanied unceasingly throughout the show by ambient sound recorded at an actual solitary unit in a Maine prison. Fittingly, it is those unsettling sounds with which both we and Sammy are left in the stillness of the show's final, trenchant tableau.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards

More from the 2024 New York City Fringe Festival:

News: FRIGID New York Announces Schedule of Performances for New York City Fringe Festival, April 3-21

Review: “Conversations with My Divorce Attorney,” or All My Little Words

Review: "Climate Fables: Debating Extinction" Offers a Vivid Fairy Tale for the End Times


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