Liza Jessie Peterson is a performer of heart, craft and charisma. Tall and commanding, she wields both power and compassion in "The Peculiar Patriot," her absorbing solo show that opened Thursday at Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul.

The production is staged simply and evocatively by Lisa Rothe on Lance Brockman's bare set, save for two environment-suggesting screens.

"Patriot" is the second show in Penumbra's festival of experimental works. It follows Petronia Paley's "On the Way to Timbuktu," a show that was overwhelmed by too many ideas. "Patriot," on the other hand, is riveting throughout its 90 focused minutes.

Peterson has an effective frame to tell her prison-oriented story. Her main character, Betsy LaQuanda Ross, regularly visits a female friend who is behind bars. Betsy updates the incarcerated woman on the people in their lives — mainly boyfriends but also others who got out of jail or who are acting the fool. She also tells of those who made good, despite the odds.

These are intimate, sister-girl testimonials with a much larger purpose. A smart writer, Peterson shows how the prison system evolved out of slavery, which was prohibited under the 13th Amendment "except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted."

That exception, we learn, leads to the U.S. becoming world's "prison superpower," with a disproportionate number of blacks and Latinos doing time for nonviolent offences. Those inmates often are housed in remote small towns where they become the economic lifeblood of communities. They are counted for allocation of government resources. Hotels and accommodations spring up to serve their visiting families. In other words, the inmates become profit centers.

We learn all of this not through some lecture, but through Betsy's conversations about the two men who are tangling for her heart. One is ill and corny, but has a great body. The other has had a political awakening, and is carrying her along.

In "Patriot," Peter captures us with humor, but also cleverly smuggles in sharp social and political observations. The result is both enlightening and entertaining.