Paul Minx was inspired to write The Long Road South in tribute to Carney, a man who worked for his family in Indiana for almost 15 years, and became a ‘shy second father’ to the young boy. And yet despite this close relationship, Minx knows very little about Carney’s personal life, because he was advised ‘not to pry, particularly with “the help”‘.
This contradiction is recreated in the play through a brief glimpse into the lives of the white Price family and their black ‘help’. Andre and Grace are preparing to leave for Alabama to join the civil rights movement – but as Andre fights for the courage to ask for his final wages, the Price’s teenage daughter Ivy tries anything to make him stay, and her mother Carol Ann heads towards a breakdown, it seems increasingly unlikely that they’ll ever be able to get away.
A truly excellent cast, directed by Sarah Berger, draw us into the complex relationships between the family members and their employees, revealing deep personal issues on both sides, where nothing is quite as it seems. Andre (Cornelius Macarthy) is mild-mannered and deeply religious, but fighting an endless battle against the demons who nearly destroyed him, whilst trying to be the man aspiring writer Grace (Krissi Bohn) wants him to be. Ivy (Lydea Perkins) seems like a self-centred brat, until we realise she’s just seeking the attention she doesn’t get from her parents. And Carol Ann (Imogen Stubbs), far from being a bored housewife, is actually a depressed alcoholic, missing her absent son and desperate for her bullying husband Jake (Michael Brandon) to take the pain away.
The drama created by putting these five damaged individuals together is fascinating, with the Prices singled out as, while maybe not the villains, definitely not the heroes of the piece. (They also get most of the laughs – of which there are many – but always at them rather than with them.) Meanwhile Andre and Grace, though far from perfect themselves, behave with a dignity that only serves to highlight the failings of their employers. It’s quite clear which side we’re expected to be on, and it’s pretty easy to oblige.
Though it’s often unexpectedly funny, at its heart The Long Road South, at King’s Head Theatre until 30th January, is a serious and heartfelt depiction of race, religion and family values in 1960s America. Maybe it doesn’t bring any startling new insights to the discussion of these well-worn issues – but that’s not really the point. The play is intended to pay personal tribute to a man the writer loved but never truly got to know, and it does so in fine and truly entertaining style.