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Written by: Miria George
Directed by: Miria George
Presented by Tawata

at Circa Two, Wellington
From 20 Jun 2012 to 7 Jul 2012

Reviewed by John Smythe, 21 Jun 2012

It's 1975 and a little piece of Atiu – also known as Enuamanu: land of birds – in the Cook Islands has been roosting in Rotorua for 20 years. As a variation on their mythical ancestor Mariri Toa, who flew to Hawaiiki to get good things for his people and bring them back, a family from the village of Areora has flown their coop to share in ‘The New Zealand Dream' so the children can be educated and fly even more freely into a wide world of opportunity.

Playwright/director Miria George has drawn somewhat on the story of her grandparents to create this work, weaving into it iconic elements of Kiwiana and anchoring it to a secret involving a relative's misguided pride that tries to hide a shame that leads to blame and the dream's inevitable crash to a steaming, mud-pooled earth.

Toni De Goldi's stylised set featuring milled timber pou against a sky-blue background, with a small rostrum stage left and a coconut husker stage right – all subtly lit by Ulli Briese – allows director George to ensure fluid transitions between the scenes.  Karnan Saba's sound design adds excellent texture.

As well as the specific dance-related sequences, choreographer Ta'i Paitai has presumably contributed to such stylised physical representations as being high above the city, of flying, of riding the streets on a Triumph Bonneville …  

Central to the story are the inseparable twins, about to turn 21. Luka, who could have been dux and owns the motor bike, dubbed Little Wing, dreams of ‘flight' to Minneapolis (its birthplace) or Sydney or London or anywhere. Lucia has flown through Junior Geysers and Miss Teens to be a serious contender for Miss Geyserland, and the $500 prize money will abet their plans for freedom, even if it does mean they have to stay around for a year while she goes to the Nationals.  

Nathan Mudge (if Elvis Presley and Marlon Brando had a child …) and the luminous Aroha White are wonderfully symbiotic as Luka and Lucia, their growing differences somehow adding strength to their bond.

Despite their parents' dream of sending them to university, Luka and Lucia somehow didn't go back for a final school year and drifted into the timber mill where their Dad has worked for 20 years, rising to the status of foreman but doomed never to pass the salary test.

We find him in a strange state of mind, immediately after a band-saw incident, it turns out.  There are issues with his eyesight and “something has come undone … a question waits to be asked …” Rob Ringiao Lloyd brings an impressively centred abstraction to Dad, commanding our interest and empathy even when he seems to be floating above another world in another time.

The ever-patient, strong if taken-for-granted foundation for the family and firm believer in the here and now is Mum, played with immense inner strength by Tina Cook even as the world around her crumbles. Her refusal to pray alongside her husband is fascinating, especially when she addresses God himself in the act of asserting she's not a believer.

The reasons for her disillusionment with the church and its hierarchies becomes apparent in a dramatic and climactic revelation I cannot detail here. It must suffice to say all four actors play it and its aftermath out with a gripping yet well-contained power.

Each audience member will have a different response to the revelations and the way the characters respond. The allegations that he waited until he had an audience, he only cared about himself and setting himself free, are key to understanding the outcome, even when we know the truth had to emerge sometime; even if we think they could and should have reacted differently.

If that is oblique, I make no apology; if it is enticing then good: be enticed. Sunset Road takes us through 100 minutes of insightful, delightful and powerful drama that captures an essence of displacement; of being in a land of promise that never feels like home; of being in a family that is other than it seemed to be. 
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See also reviews by:
 Ewen Coleman [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] (The Dominion Post);