Review: Four Places (Outhouse Theatre Co)

outhouseVenue: TAP Gallery (Darlinghurst NSW), Jul 29 – Aug 10, 2014
Writer: Joel Drake Johnson
Director: Nicholas Hope
Cast: Amanda Stephens Lee, Jeremy Waters, Kim Hillas, Briony Williams
Image by Richard Farland Photography

Theatre review
Death affects everyone, but how each of us relates to it differs. People have different expectations about how terminal illnesses should be managed, also which individuals are to be held responsible for the well-being of the dying, and certainly our ideas about the “afterlife” are informed by a wide range of religious and spiritual beliefs, or lack thereof. Joel Drake Johnson’s script explores life at its final stages for the average middle class person, with ruminations about fear, love, family and ideology.

Nicholas Hope’s direction keeps the action very subdued. Its naturalism is so thorough that we often feel like eavesdroppers, and the family that we observe are going about their business with as much mundanity as any other party of three at a casual dining spot. They talk about serious matters, but they rarely allow themselves to react too dramatically. These are not people very open with their feelings, even if one of them is a psychologist. They each have their own secrets, and they seem content with not knowing too much about each other’s. We see the mother character Peggy, wearing an over sized crucifix as a pendant, and we are tempted to associate the stifling oppressiveness with their religious and cultural background.

Peggy is played by Kim Hillas, who is believable and truthful in her interpretation of the script, but she is often too subtle. It is a rare joy to see a play with an older female as its lead character, but we long for greater drama and stronger comedy. The theatre can be a reflection of real life, but it is also storytelling, and we need embellishments in order that our empathy can be amplified and made meaningful. Amanda Stephens Lee has the unenviable task of playing Ellen, the psychologist daughter, who is also a widow still in mourning. The character is a repressed one, and the actor portrays effectively, the dread that is felt when having to manage one’s parents’ illnesses. The role of her brother is performed by Jeremy Waters, who does his best to prevent familial disquiet. We see the character’s frustrations even if his lines give little away, and Waters makes good use of each opportunity that allows some range to his work.

To connect with an audience, a story needs to locate its points of universality and give it emphasis. Four Places has themes that we can relate to, but its characters are not accessible to all. If we do not understand them, their problems become diminished. If they do not fascinate, we lose interest. Every person on a stage has a tale to share, but it is the artistic choices they make that determines how many will be able to hear them.