Sam Shepard’s Pultizer prize winning play is a gem of 20th century American theatre, twisting the threads of the nuclear familiar drama into a grim, macabre spectacle, all at once surreal and firmly rooted. At the heart of the story are Halie and Dodge, their children Tilden and Bradley, and interlopers; Vince and Shelley. The clash at the heart of this story makes for fine, devastating fodder, risen to by the team approaching it this week.
The real strength of this production stems from the choices of Renae May Miller’s direction. It seems a hard fought battle to place emphasis on the lightness of the script, but it is done with deft and nimble hands, elevating the text into a comically twisted interpretation that serves both its heavy themes and the, often, playful push of the dialogue.
It seems, somewhat, a shame that the technical choices utilised don’t always reflect this nuance. In more intense moments, an audience is pushed by the lights and sound into heavy reds and racing heartbeats, which seems to remove the audience’s navigation of the story and presses serious, difficult work into something verging on melodrama and cliche. What is done to make the audience laugh early on – moments often carried by Seb Vaughn’s Dodge, who rides the line between grumbling patriarch and fluid, bitter humour with such deftness that his performance is at once surprising and delightful at every turn – the darker, more intense moments of the script seem not to need pulsing red lights and overwhelming sound to indicate to the audience the devastation placed upon this family. In fact, an audience member wonders how it might be to experience this play with more cultivated silence, quietened voices in the space. Perhaps it would be far more devastating? Leo Jarvis’ arresting interpretation of younger son Bradley is sometimes hindered by these technical choices. As he reaches notes that verge on terrifying, his subtle and quietly frightening choices are dashed by heightening technical decisions, that allow for no uneasiness.
This isn’t to say that every technical choice is jarring; light streams from behind the stage to suggest a world outside in a way that feels both symbolic and haunting, the light intensifies during monologues and snaps back in a way that lifts the moment into something soaring, and the overall aesthetic of the production is malleable and cartoon-ish in a way that, largely, serves the story being told.
The burden of the emotional weight of this story is largely carried by James Chetwood’s Tilden, a man living with trauma that has regressed his mental state – this performance is visceral, an intense and full bodied experience that feels utterly lived in, carried with a rarified intensity and consistency that carries the play into darkness with so much quiet believability that it’s breathtaking. It’s notable that Sarah McConnell’s shining performance as Shelley is at its most special and sweet when paired with Vaughn and Chetwood, injecting the play with momentum and interest. Similarly, Astrid Melin Shearer’s slow burning performance as Halie flourishes in the final scene of the play, where her fractured, delicate interpretation blooms into something more full-bodied; of particular note are her facial expressions, pushed to a place that serves comedy before realism until everything slips to a darker note, paired with Filip Gesse’s delightful, flirty, enlivening appearance.
These assured performances occasionally hinder Jacob Ashbridge, who plays Vince with a lazy, shuffling quality that never feels quite as accomplished or as confident as those onstage with him. His longer scenes in the middle of the play seem to sag the momentum into a plodding quality, though this is warmer by the end when he takes on a more intense, crazed mode.
The set – Lena Tondello. and Rebecca McGreevy – reflects the abstracted quality of the play in its painted lamp and bookcase, at once adding and denying depth and interaction. All is painted and realised with accomplished, impressive detail that plunges the audiences into off-kilter, absurdist surroundings. Of particular note is the curtain used at the back of the stage, indicating the entrance to the house. The soft, gauze-y quality of this material created a ghostly affect when actors would move through it, finding it sticking to their bodies as they pass through into the action. This is aided by a very complete sense of aesthetic to the production. This set feels at one with the costumes and make-up, which reflect the abject poverty of these characters whilst streaking colour and reality through the setting and age and physically alter elements of character in striking, subtle ways.
Overall, Sam Shepard’s play straddles the tangible and ephemeral in engaging, difficult ways, admirably tackled by the production team, often through bold choices that sometimes pay off, and sometimes fall a little short. Regardless, the play is carried by strong performances, and careful, nuanced direction in an arresting setting, that make for an exciting, upsetting evening of theatre,