Reginald Theatre, May 25
The grip is immediate, and it only tightens as the play goes on. Yet the wonder is that this grip is not so much driven by a story as by a single emotion; the one the Lodge’s previous inhabitant found so elusive: compassion. In other hands a play with multiple scenes set before AA meetings would be likely to drown a spillage of mawkishness. But US playwright Adam Bock is too good for that. He makes his characters initially draw us in with their warmth, humour and benign bickering; makes the reasons they go to AA secondary to their in-the-present interaction.
The structure is ingenious and equally keenly crafted. All but one of the scenes has the same setting, and their effect is cumulative, like so many bricks building a wall, the characters’ histories initially as sparingly applied as mortar. The scene that’s the exception is a solo rather than a duo, trio or quartet: just one back-story, as told at a meeting proper, by middle-aged Gail (the brilliant Jane Phegan).
The 80-minute play’s centrepiece, it comes around the two-thirds mark –with the house lights partially up, so we, too, are at the meeting as Gail begins by relating all the facets of her childhood that she can’t blame for her alcoholism. But as the monologue progresses through the stages of her disease to the point where she weans herself off not only booze and dope, but sugar, coffee and excessive food, the lighting tightens around her. Bock takes us deep inside Gail’s life, which, like all lives, involves laughter as well as tragedy. A lesser playwright might have allocated such a speech to every character, but one of Bock’s crowning achievements is to make the specificity and intimacy of Gail’s story come to stand for all.
Phegan’s delivery of the speech is the high point of a production replete with peaks, and burdened with no troughs. Her voice dances across the confessional lines like an alto saxophone riffing on an ever-expanding theme, and meanwhile her physical acting deepens the truth and the impact, with fingers, hands, wrists, arms and shoulders all as movingly expressive as her face.
Just as astonishingly good are Alex Malone as the pregnant Nicole, whose jokes and wisecracks are her only body-armour as the world comes sniping at her, Tim McGarry as Ron, an irascible ageing man with a heart of gold, and Tim Walker as nervy young Tim, an AA first-timer when the play begins. The cameo fifth character is Gail’s adult daughter, Angela, who bursts in on the action after Gail’s monologue, and clouds some of the truth of what we’ve just heard. Ariadne Sgouros is the only actor whose performance shows the faintest fault-lines, but then she has the mighty challenge of entering the action at the three-quarter mark already in a towering rage.
Chrysoulla Markoulli’s gently wistful music demarcates the scenes, and is an exquisite counterpoint to the sharpness of the dialogue – another box ticked in this masterful, perfectly-cast production directed by Kim Hardwick (for White Box Theatre). The characters throb with life on Martin Kinnane’s set depicting a dreary church basement room, becoming ever more lacerating, until you walk out dazed and wounded – but also exhilarated by the truth, the lustre and the intensity of it all. Were this a Sydney Festival production and the actors blessed with greater renown, the queues would stretch around the block. You must see it.
Until June 11.