ROOM 22 – LIVE! Joanne Harris, the host of Sydney Academy Dramagroup’s Room 22 – Live!, stood at the centre stage of the group’s new rehearsal/performing space and laconically remarked, “My alarm went off this morning…luckily, it was only a small fire.”
There was a brief pause, then the packed room broke out in laughter. The rest of Harris’ material was equally quirky, a mix of David Letterman and Steve Reich, that sometimes hit its mark and sometimes didn’t. The show itself was fast-paced, enjoyable mix of sketch humour and music with Harris’ stand up links tying the package together.
“The Young And The Useless” was a good soap opera parody with Janice Hawley rattling off a year’s worth of plot in a thirty second speech, Rory MacDonald and Jeremy MacLeod in “Coffee” had some Beckettish exchanges over the request for some spare change. “Bingo” raised a few chuckles over the numerically challenged. “The Dream” was a Twilight Zone send up that worked to a hilarious eruption of rage. “The Fashion Is The Fashion” a well-honed satire of designer snobbishness, was my favourite sketch of the evening and some of the show’s best lines with one pouting model demanding, “Do you understand my pants?” (another favourite line of the evening was “In America, all we tolerate is sex and guns, so unless you want to shoot me, shut up.”)
I found it interesting that of the three songs performed, only one of them was written during the lifetime of the young people performing them. Aaron MacDonald did some impressive guitar work on Eric Clapton’s classic ode to unrequited love, “Layla”. “Wait”, a wry anthem to teenage angst, was hauntingly sung by the angelic voiced Angie Arsenault (and well backed by Aaron MacDonald, Bill MacInnis and Eric Burkel). However, Ms. Arsenault’s second song, “Hazy Shade of Winter” (misidentified in the program as “Paler Shade Of Winter”), featured great harmony work with Andrea Curry, but their performance was not as tight as it might have been.
Director Maynard Morrison let the enthusiasm of his young cast spark their material. He also made good use of the compact stage and limited technical effects available to him. The result was a funny, energetic show.
A WOMAN WITHOUT A NAME. “I am only a stupid woman.” In a nameless rural town in a nameless state at an unnamed time in the hard scrabble past of the United States, a woman looks over her life and condemns herself with this sentence. Her husband, David, runs a general store or escapes to a fishing stream to avoid facing the tensions at home. As the play opens, one of their two daughters is dead from a bloodily botched abortion and the other daughter is soon to die as well. Her two sons have left home to find work in The City. Charlie, the resentful rebellious son, toils at a newspaper and blames his mother for the family’s misfortunes. His older brother, Ed, has ruined his lungs with every breath he took while working in a glass factory and when he too returns home to die, fills his remaining days by covering the walls of his room with a hellish mural full of bestial demons that bear a tortured resemblance to his family.
Adding to her woes, the doctor sent to prison for her daughter’s abortion has been paroled and is seeking the woman’s forgiveness which, in her furious grief and anger, she refuses to grant. The town’s ladies temperance league recruits her for its ranks, but does so with such icy condescension it only serves to remind the woman of her lowly social status.
Through it all, the woman catalogues each grief, misery, frustration and emotional scar in her “jernal” with half remembered spellings and dimly guessed punctuation. A Woman Without A Name is a grueling play, both for its performers and its audience, which is probably how its playwright Rommulus Linney in-tended it to be. And thanks to a talented, dedicated cast and sensitive direction, the recent production A Woman Without A Name, presented in February at the Boardmore Playhouse as a part of the UCCB Dramagroup’s 28th Annual Festival of Plays, was triumphantly and movingly faithful to the spirit of Linney’s script.
Jeanne Matthews, as the title character, gave a harrowing heartbreaking performance in a difficult role. Matthews ably caught the contradictions in the woman’s personality; outwardly she is hard and emo-tionally inaccessible to her family but it’s only a defense to cover her guilt and fragile self-esteem. It’s a tough acting task to make onstage suffering sympathetic and to gradually and subtlely evolve into a redemptive triumph but Matthews did it with sureness and precision.
As her amiable husband David, Nick Sobol had an equally tough job. David seems confident and upbeat, but he does not have the emotional resources to withstand each tragedy that overtakes his family. David is a character with a flaw and as the flaw took over, Sobol’s performance modulated from strength to helpless defeat.
Robin McKitterick, as the angry Charlie, gave a taut, focussed, dramatic performance. Charlie is the most unsympathetic character mostly because he sees his mother the most clearly but judges her the most harshly. MacKitterick, best known for his ener-getic comedic roles, stripped down his performance to the powerful essentials.
As the doomed Ed, George Howie brought a haunted dreaminess to his role. Jan MacQuarrie, as the servant girl Calistra, was the embodiment of compassionate wisdom. As a symbol of small town sobriety, Josie Sobol was a perky delight. And Kevin O’Shea, as the anguished Dr. Craig, with little dialogue created a believable portrait of a decent man trapped by circumstance.
Director Mike McPhee continually chooses emotionally challenging pieces that rely on great acting rather than showy production values. Linney’s play is no exception; it packs in a lot of extreme emotions in short telling scenes and rarely gives the audience a chance to relax. It also requires the director to coax strong believable performances from his cast and, like his other plays, McPhee, in this work, never makes a misstep. He kept the set simple and let the characters create the world in which they lived. But with an open playing area, there is the need for the director and cast to consistently define where the invisible doors and walls are and sometimes through the play, I found this wasn’t carried through. It did not detract from the impact of the great performances on stage though. Although bleak in its vision, A Woman Without A Name proved no life is beyond redemption and grace.