REVIEW: Great Falls | Ensemble Theatre, Sydney
A slice of small-town America comes to the Ensemble Theatre stage in Lee Blessing’s 90-minute two-hander. A smart script is brought down by some bad design.
To quote that ubiquitous font of almost all internet knowledge (or at lest knowledge gleaned from it), Wikipedia: “Great Falls is a city in and the county seat of Cascade County, Montana, United States. The 2011 census estimate put the population at 58,950.” Think small town. Claustrophobia. No place for an might-on 18-year-old and her stepfather to be trying to resolve their relationship.
Lee Blessing’s 90-minute two-hander has been taken on by Ensemble Theatre, directed by Anna Crawford. She may be young, but she has a list of stage, television credits as long as David Williamson’s arm. And career. In casting and taking charge of Erica Lovell, as Bitch, and Christopher Stollery, as Monkey Man, she has shown fine judgement.
Lovell is measured in portraying a desperately needy young woman, busy disguising her disposition with adolescent cool; though she yearns for acceptance, love, respect and affection from Monkey Man (it even shows in her ironically disparaging nickname for him), she holds him at arm’s length with steely determination. Meanwhile, MM may be a writer, but he’s clueless and clumsy when it comes to human relations, empathy and compassion. He verbalises as a matter of compulsion, the very opposite of Elmore Leonard’s Chilli Palmer, who wisely espouses the motto, “don’t talk if you don’t have to”. Yet the two have and discover a perverse chemistry, partly by dint of the tangible, insofar as a shared literary talent; but also something much more difficult to pin down, but which is undeniably there, even if it remains unspoken.
Blessing’s script is deft, as it manages to weave together commonplace “family” issues of universal relevance and concern. Love. Marriage. Extra-maritals. Divorce. Incest. Rape. Abortion. It sounds heavy and, at certain moments, it is, but Blessing has the dramatic and common sense to interpolate all these subjects into the fabric of these two lives as if they conform to their norm; because, for them, as for many, these things are, unfortunately, part and parcel of the everyday.
There’s little room for judgement, fawning pity or perfunctory expressions of disgust. This is to Blessing’s immense credit as a playwright and human being. It’s clearly not an ambition of his to promote victimhood. Instead, he plumps for survival and gradual transcendence, with time and moral support the key enablers. (I’ve an inkling there are one or two critics who’ve intimated Blessing’s substantial failure is to shoehorn in too many issues, so as to stretch credibility a little too far: would any one family be confronted with such a litany of tragedy, almost at one? Still, I think this might say more about the ivory towers we critics can sometimes insularly dwell in than anything else.)
Bitch and MM are on a road trip. For whatever misguided reason, he’s taking her back to the scene of his happy, glory days, as a boy, on a mundane family holiday. She claims he’s kidnapped her, but we soon learn, though some cajoling may’ve been applied, she’s reluctantly agreed to go. The accusation is for effect. Bitch listens to her iPod while MM drones on about arcane historical, geographical or other details. She just can’t get excited about the landmarks MM gets a hard-on for, whether it’s Thermopolis Springs (apparently the world’s largest hot mineral spring), Old Faithful (the famous geyser in Yellowstone) or, most unlikely source of fascination of them all, the Anaconda smelter smokestack (which might be one of the tallest freestanding brick structures on Earth, but so what?). This serves to confirm MM as a consummate nerd and harden Bitch’s resolve to the point she covers herself in a blanket at the precise moment Old Faithful faithfully ejaculates with tourist brochure spectacularity.
But it’s no accident, methinks, that Blessing has his characters explore the wild west together. After all, with respect to expanding the horizons of their relationship, they’re like pilgrims or frontiersman and there can be no more potent motif for trailblazing. As David Murdoch has said: “No other nation has taken a time and place from its past and produced a construct of the imagination equal to America’s creation of the West.”
Production wise, there are a couple of aggravating distractions, both of which pertain, essentially to set design. While convertible vinyl bench seats suffice, variously, as a car interior, hotel beds and waiting room, did we really have to be subjected to the literalism of Stollery walking around with a steering wheel?! And what of the woebegone backdrop; possibly the fugliest I’ve ever seen, its aesthetic horrors unmitigated by any kind of functionality. A poo-brown expanse of faux patina, distressed (as I was) by fake cracks. To make matters worse, a few attempts were made to project imagery onto this busy canvas.
It may sound trivial, but it was diverting enough, in the worst possible way, to compromise the focus where it should’ve pertained and remained, on the characters. It was a classic “what were they thinking?!” cue.
The details: Great Falls plays the Ensemble Theatre until March 9. Tickets on the company website.