Grief, in all its permutations, is complicated. In May, it will be re-categorised by the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual as an episode of major depressive disorder – in other words, a mental illness. This attempt to medicalise something so human has been criticised, but the debate indicates how emotive, how difficult to understand, it still is, even in 2013. Purple Heart examines a grief that is more complicated still, because how do you react to your husband’s absence when he treated you so poorly that you had become unsure how to react to his presence?
Bruce Norris is most famous for his Pulitzer-, Tony- and Olivier-award-winning play, Clybourne Park. This earlier drama, from 2002, is still concerned with the failures and successes of America as seen through the family and the home. Purple Heart takes place entirely in the suburban front room of an American family in 1972, with Carla struggling to bring up her son in the wake of his father’s death in Vietnam.
This both is and isn’t a play about her husband’s death. Many of the things we might see as symptoms of her grief, including her apathy and her alcoholism, seem to have pre-existed his death – though they have clearly been exacerbated by her current emotional turmoil.
Having hated and loved her husband all at once, Carla now lives a twilight existence in which she both refuses to grieve and is capable of nothing else. After all, a Purple Heart is a US Military Decoration – but as Norris reminds us, it is also a visceral image in its own right, something sickly and blood-swollen. He comments on the way a real heart does not look like the popular image, reminding us, as this suburban tragedy reminds us, of how the veneer of respectability can hide the reality – of the way in which a human heart cannot conform to what is expected of it.
As Carla, Amelia Lowdell exudes a kind of desperate inner strength that sees her lashing out at the interfering mother-in-law, Grace, who has foisted her attentions upon Carla. She has a kind of immunity to all Grace’s barbs, something like a burnt-out inability to feel more than she feels already, but also a kind of deep-seated personal resolve that keeps Carla likeable even at her worst. Lowdell’s Carla is mercurial, compelling and, ultimately, unbearably sad. Her sadness is palpable. It fills the room.
The tragedies that have befallen Carla are disturbing in nature, and Director Christopher Haydon (also the Gate’s Artistic Director) has managed to invest the play with a pervasive tension that makes one feel, even from the very opening moments, that there is something creepy about the wonderful seventies-suburbia set.
When Corporal Purdey arrives on her doorstep, Carla believes it is another emissary from the community outside her front door, people she does not know who have come to pay their respects to America’s war with offerings of casserole and sympathy. Actually, Purdey claims to have met her in the military hospital where she was taken to recover from the breakdown she suffered at her husband’s funeral – though she does not remember him.
Trevor White is wonderfully unsettling as Purdey, imbuing him with just enough polite charm to keep him on the right side of sinister, and the mirroring of Purdey, a lonely adult, with Carla’s son Thor, a lonely child, is neatly done. Thor shows signs of a burgeoning unhealthy attitude to war, violence and women, which is not too surprising given the things he has experienced so young and the attitudes his father clearly held. There is a perfectly suburban fascination with, and total mistrust of, female sexuality that is well brought out by Norris as well as the able cast.
Nonetheless, this is clearly an early play, if only because it is unrelentingly horrible, as many early plays seem to be. The sinister undertones slide steadily into sinister overtones quite neatly, but one feels a kind of horror fatigue towards the end, the revelations having come thick and fast until you are a strange mixture of nauseous and beyond being further shocked – presumably much like Carla.
The ending is predictable, but with the excellent Lowdell and White supported so well by Linda Broughton, as interfering mother-in-law Grace, and Oliver Coopersmith, perfectly pitched as Thor, credibility is absolutely maintained. You may see it coming, but it still packs a punch.
Purple Heart is playing at the Gate Theatre until 6 April. For more information and tickets, see the Gate Theatre website. Photo by Hugo Glendinning.