I’m standing in the downstairs section of the State Theatre after the show lamenting the fact that the bar is closed at such an unseemly early hour. There are conversations to be had, the kind best enjoyed over a quiet drink as opinions and thoughts are bandied about. The usual opening show congratulations are shared as the cast emerge from the bowels of Rehearsal Room 1. Out of the corner of my eye I see the director approach. We shake hands then there is the inevitable, “so what did you think?”
“I don’t know. I need to think about it.”
To his credit director Garreth Bradshaw immediately came back with, “good, I prefer that to you saying it was ‘alright’”.
Most times I pretty much know immediately what my reaction to a show is. Here, at that moment in time, I had no clue. What did I think indeed? I could have bullshitted or offered some limp platitude but what’s the point? I hate it when people comment on my own work that way and I’m not going to disrespect a fellow creative in similar fashion. Then there’s this:
I genuinely had to think about it.
I was very high on this company’s previous production, The Pillowman, which was deliciously dark, subversive and right in my wheelhouse. By comparison, Neil LaBute’s examination of disaffected American youth is the sort of ‘slice of life’ tale that I seldom respond to but yet…
The play opens with two youths mocking monkeys at the zoo. “Primates, they just don’t get it.” Bradshaw then drapes his actors on (movable) scaffolding whenever they are not required in a scene to watch the drama that is unfolding below them. Yes, those actors and the audience become observers of ‘primates’ of a different kind who truly don’t get it as we watch the troubled Darrell (Jordan Gallagher) interact with his dysfunctional family and friends.
And what a lot they are – the immature, put upon Tim (Nic Doig) who is Darrell’s best friend and target of his mockery; his mother Cammie (Jess Stenglein) who is shacked up with boyfriend Rich (Patrick Downes); and Darrell’s step-sister Shari (Katie Rose Spence) and her constantly crying baby. Then there’s his girlfriend Jenn (Rebecca Virginia Williams) whose sexual ‘transgression’ two years prior will ultimately ignite Darrell’s short fuse; and ‘the mysterious girl’ (Madelaine Page) who reveals Jenn’s secret to tragic consequences.
None of them are particularly likeable… but that’s the point. The neglect within the family unit has seeped into every generation from Cammie’s lack of warmth to Shari’s disregard for her baby to Darrell’s violent temper. What was fascinating was the hierarchical nature of this male driven world – while Darrell may boss Tim around, Rich treats his girlfriend’s son with equal contempt.
Gallagher is riveting as Darrell. He is a physical presence who plays the teenager with petulance, impulsiveness and a sense of ever present rage. When that anger finally boils over he is devastating in his retribution. We need this to even remotely comprehend the heinous act the character commits in the final moments. Doig’s Tim is initially the goofy one who is no match for his friend’s intensity and cruel jibes. But as we get to the business end of proceedings the character is portrayed with a quiet strength and decency that almost redeems this sorry lot. Kudos also to Doig who closes the play with an act that is totally true to the moment and revealing in more ways than one.
Downes is the singlet clad, macho dude who is instantly familiar in any setting. He plays rough with Darrell and even rougher in his affections for Cammie who Rich betrays as a typically testosterone driven arsehole. It’s a strong performance all the more so because it is such a loathsome character on many levels. Stenglein is good in a difficult role as her character has affection for Rich but is seemingly disinterested in her son’s emotional wellbeing and her step-daughter’s predicament. The baby doesn’t have a chance in this household, its cries a trigger for lethargy rather than caring.
Spence exudes a languid sexuality that comes into play later but gives Shari a self-centred, bored air as well. Even to the extent of propositioning her step-brother, anything for relief in this self-constructed cage. Williams adds a little spunk to Jenn as she stands up to Darrell but her ‘betrayal’ renders the character impotent in the face of his anger. She has nice moments with Doig as those two characters bond dealing with the fallout of Darrell’s antics. Page has a featured scene as ‘the secret’ is revealed.
The acting is strong, the last third compelling as Darrell takes drastic action, the ending memorable. The mood is enhanced by the use of guitarist Darryn Santana in the wings. The movable scaffolding meant the scene transitions were a little clunky and the naming of each setting projected on a white backdrop at the back of the stage felt redundant. Bradshaw also mentioned (before I could say it) that the seats have to be moved forward as there was indeed a distance to the action in the cavernous space.
Why did I have to think?
I liked the acting, I didn’t like the characters. I liked the drama at the end but I didn’t like the world they inhabited. I liked the courage to tackle edgy material but the rawness was uncomfortable and, at times, confronting. To that end the play is a tremendous success. I don’t think LaBute wants me to like it. I think he wants me to be unsettled and to think. By that measure Bradshaw and his cast and crew have done an excellent job.
The Distance From Here is on at the State Theatre’s Rehearsal Room 1, every night until 13 September at 7pm.