By Shelagh Stephenson
Directed by Andrew Foster
Auckland Theatre Company
Maidment Theatre, Auckland | May 28-June 20
Unsurprisingly, parental grief is a popular subject for both the stage and screen. Think Rabbit Hole, Antichrist, or Don’t Look Now. It’s rich material for actors to play with, allowing them a range of intense emotions to explore. But this also means diminishing returns for anyone with viewing habits such as myself (someone who watches too much of everything). Shelagh Stephenson’s Enlightenment changes things up slightly by adding uncertainty into the mix, making it so the central couple’s son is not necessarily dead, just missing. But uncertainty, Stephenson reveals, can be so much worse than knowing, never letting the parents rest, pulling them apart with fear and hope, pessimism and optimism.
This dichotomy is best exemplified—perhaps too clearly—by the characterisation of the parents, Lia (Rachel Nash) and Nick (Stephen Lovatt). She’s a nervous wreck who won’t move on; he’s cold and distant and wants things back to normal. Nash has the biggest role and mostly manages to give us the vast emotional canvas of grief, conveying quietly mournful to full blown rage. Lovatt has the smaller role by comparison but gives it the stoicism it needs while hinting at more damaged depths. And while the first act of the play never overcomes the hurdle of feeling overdone, it isn’t unwatchable by any means either. Catherine Wilkin as Joyce the “medium” helps diffuse the potentially maudlin proceedings with some straight-faced humour and suspicious supernatural elements that accentuate the play’s ambiguous nature.
It’s the second act of the play where things really pick up, while simultaneously underlining the problems with the script. Where act one is a rather conventional grief drama, act two turns audience expectations on its head and transforms the play into a somewhat schlocky psychological thriller. While it would be easy to call this sudden derailing of the previous act’s setup a failure, that wouldn’t be entirely correct. If anything, the unexpected arrival of a guest resembling their lost son gives the play the energy it needs to keep it interesting, resulting in a far more riveting and exciting theatrical experience than you might otherwise expect. But, because the entire basis of act two isn’t founded on any logical sequence of events, the trajectory of the play falters, leading to a rather deflating ending, a rushed attempt to wrap things up nicely, despite the messiness of the material.
If there’s a reason to watch the play, though, it is Jordan Mooney’s animalistic performance as the guest. He steals the show whenever he’s on stage, chewing up the scenery and occasionally upstaging his co-stars, for better or worse. He so fully-embodies his broken and enigmatic character that it’s impossible to take your eyes off him. The problem is his character exists solely as a dramatic device, leaving nowhere for the character to develop or grow.
The rest of the supporting cast are competent but are, once again, undermined by the material they’re given. David Aston seems superfluous as Gordon, but is a strong enough presence to make his time on stage count. Anna Jullienne as Joanna suffers similarly and exists only to stir things up rather than play any significant role in the story, but she’s the right amount of thoughtless to generate some welcome laughter.
Dan Williams’s set design, consisting of metal frameworks, is an interesting one. It works well as a visual metaphor for the emptiness of the couple’s life in contrast to their material possessions, but doesn’t serve much of a purpose practically, except for some odd and rather arbitrary scene changes. It does, however, leave a mostly spare set which is effective in pulling focus to the performances.
If the show succeeds on any level, which is predominately intellectually rather than emotionally, credit goes to director Andrew Foster, who underlines the themes of the play, from quantum physics to metaphysics, with great clarity. The result is a thought-provoking and occasionally nail-biting piece of theatre, but one that never overcomes the obstacles in Stepehnson’s script, which ultimately values pontification over truth.