Lennox Theatre, October 20
Here’s a gentle irony buried in a shallow grave: the play that finally signals the coming of age of the National Theatre of Parramatta is about the premature death of a little girl. In this relentlessly Philistine land it’s unsurprising that Peter Goldsworthy’s 1993 novella Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam is barely recognised as a crucial work of Australian literature. Perhaps its unassuming style belied the weight of the moral dilemmas posed.
Director Darren Yap commissioned Steve Rodgers to adapt it for the stage, and while one could contest some decisions in relation to both structure and emphasis, Rodgers has the novella’s fiercely beating heart laid as bare as if it were dissected from one who died of grief. He has preserved the story’s almost unbearable sadness while minimising a creeping sentimentality.
The decision made by Linda (Emma Jackson) and Rick (Justin Smith) when their daughter Emma (affectionately known as Wol because of her owl-like wisdom and love of Winnie the Pooh, and brilliantly played by young Grace Truman) is dying of leukaemia is entirely based on love at its most rational. Is there such a thing? Yes, and it sidesteps moral conundrums as deftly as a virtuoso footballer sidesteps a tackle. For those unfamiliar with the novella I shan’t reveal the ending, but this is potent work, its pivot-point being Wol’s moment of blind fury at the injustice of her fate. Truman plays this with such heartbreaking conviction that you feel it shake the room to its core.
It is also an idyllic love story of Linda and Rick’s shared passions and minutiae, enacted on an Emma Vine set hinged around a towering bookcase that is a stairway to heaven of stories and knowledge, beside which is a little cubbyhouse, where Wol sleeps like a damaged doll.
Yap’s production includes such coups as a rolled blanket becoming the couple’s first child, Ben, compellingly played (post-blanket) by Liam Nunan). Rodgers has reduced Goldsworthy’s characters, and the cast is ably completed by Valerie Bader (Grandma/Dr Eve) and Mark Lee (Grandpa/priest).
I could quibble about the time given to Rick’s letters to Ben, which steal from us a deeper acquaintance with Wol, but this is borderline. More importantly Rodgers has superbly preserved flashes of Goldsworthy’s unselfconscious poeticism in the dialogue. Persuasive throughout, Jackson pose’s the play’s unanswerable question: “How much worse can grief be?”