WELL STRUCTURED FIRST OUTING A RICH EXPERIENCE
by Lori Leigh
directed by Fiona McNamara
at BATS Theatre (Out Of Site), Cnr Cuba & Dixon, Wellington
From 4 Jun 2014 to 14 Jun 2014
Reviewed by John Smythe, 5 Jun 2014
The family reunion provoked by – or provoking – a crisis, in which pent-up resentments erupt and secrets are exposed, is a well-established theatrical genre. Recent examples seen in Wellington include August: Osage County and Other Desert Cities, both from the USA and both produced by Circa.
Now, at Bats, Lori Leigh, an American resident in NZ (and with a PhD in Theatre from Victoria University of Wellington), has brought the genre home to Feilding: 14-times winner of NZ's Most Beautiful Town despite being landlocked and ‘in the middle of noewhere'. And this time it's all about the women.
A portrait of Jesus Christ and the framed legend, “God – Unseen Guest – Silent Listener” dominate the otherwise ordinary living room, designed by Debbie Fish. Sasha Tilly's costume designs likewise speak of everyday people in everyday lives. Thus the foundations are well laid for revelations of the extraordinary.
The motivating crisis in Leigh's Revelations is that the deeply religious family matriarch – limited to the title ‘Nana' and kept offstage until her portrait photograph replaces the iconic Jesus – has declared The Rapture is imminent and summoned her daughters home. Two granddaughters also answer the call and one has her man in tow.
A narrative device, accompanied by a portentous and other-worldly sound effect (Oliver Devlin), allows the daughters and granddaughters to address the audience directly, thus revealing their inner feelings and perspectives.
It seems they have lost touch with each other because each is either self-involved or self-contained, or wants to be. Except, perhaps, for Claire: a self-doubting relationship therapist recently divorced from John, the prescription drug-addled father of their daughters. Claire has stayed relatively close to ‘Nana' and is trying to be a good mother to Lacy, who has been expelled from school for selling pills and is desperate to escape this island prison; to lose or find herself and the world in an Indonesian rainforest.
Lisa, the other (grand)daughter, lives in Auckland now. A self-acknowledged commitment-phobe with a bad taste in men, she has been trying to reform herself by settling for a ‘nerd'. But Ted has been sorely testing her with his compulsive online trysts and trading, and now he too seems to be preparing for some kind of personal apocalypse.
‘Nana's other daughter, Margaret, has been living overseas – England, judging by her accent – and a feminist academic and writer, estranged by her lesbianism from her mother (no mention of father /granddad, by the way). Someone calls her the “prodigal daughter” but there is nothing to suggest Margaret's lifestyle is recklessly wasteful or extravagant. (Thanks to the parable of The Prodigal Son, there is a widespread misapprehension that prodigal means returning.)
Lori Leigh has crafted rich characters and relationships here by way of commenting on the 21st Century human condition. The realities of ‘Nana', Lacy, Lisa and Ted are somewhat heighted, verging on the absurdist, and throughout the play Claire gravitates towards that sphere too. Only Margaret – played with a bemused detachment by Isobel Mebus – maintains a relative equilibrium, albeit that of a distant moon.
In claiming Claire as her own, Emma Kinane clearly personifies the erratically propelled pinball who wants to be in control of her life and find some meaning in it all. Freya Sadgrove captures the dry wit of Lacy's adolescent angst to a tee, eliciting many a belly-laugh in the process.
As the volatile volcano ever-threatening to blow, and sometimes doing so, Brynley Stent's Lisa is compellingly convincing. Likewise Hayden Frost makes us believe the extremities of Ted's actions are real, although script-wise that and the survival of their relationship offers quite a challenge to our willing suspension of disbelief.
Along with the absurdist magnifications, which are all the more effective for arising from contemporary realities, there are some surreal touches, also given rational explanations to keep us grounded. The heavenly light, from the hole in the roof where the rain gets in, is the crowning glory of Uther Dean's excellent lighting design.
Directed by Fiona McNamara, this world premiere production is well modulated with strong performances and dynamically integrated design elements. Normally I'd cringe at a shaking set but in this case the resulting movement of ‘Nanna's portrait (a radiant Kate Harcourt) seems spookily appropriate.
Doubtless further evolution will occur: I have a feeling the physical response to the final visitor could be rethought, for example, to bring the threads together in a more meaningful climax.
Overall the script is well structured with some especially excellent touches, like the ways St John the Divine and his Book of Revelation is integrated throughout, and Lisa's propensity to rush to judgement by going straight to the last page of a book is paid off in the play's dénouement.
Amid the many attempts we see each year to reinvent theatre, it is reassuring to see a new playwright honour the values of strong characters and relationships in a well-wrought narrative that explores themes in a way that makes the play resonate beyond its physical parameters. I do like a play that leaves me thinking about what it's about, rather than how it's done. It makes for a richer experience.
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Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] (The Dominion Post);