Doing nothing to dent the Park’s solidifying reputation for well-judged, imaginative programming, Shutters is a triple bill of short American plays. A six-strong, all-female cast, directed by Jack Thorpe Baker, perform every part in all three plays – two pieces of new writing and a revival of a one-act early twentieth century classic.
The evening begins with Philip Dawkins’s Cast of Characters, a metatheatrical tale of a Midwestern family slowly falling apart. The story of their lives is narrated and performed by the cast, while a deadpan disembodied voice occasionally interrupts with production notes and the characters on stage scramble to follow them. It’s sleekly and wittily directed by Thorpe Baker, using a multi-purpose set of large colourful wooden blocks. Three daughters return home for their mother Bernice’s birthday and their back stories are revealed in frantic, funny flashbacks. Yolanda Kettle as the middle sister, Vicky, gives a stand-out performance here, from her hip wiggle in the pre-show warm-up to the perfect faux-concerned asides she delivers to the audience and other cast members throughout the show: “Liz [the eldest sister] has always been the ugliest beautiful girl I know”.
While all the characters are caricatures (Marie, the youngest sister, is a vegetarian part-time librarian; Vicky marries her all-American childhood sweetheart, Troy), we gradually begin to realise that a lot is being left unsaid, and that this is really a story of everyday tragedies. However, this knowledge is slightly lost behind the fast-paced, comedic tone of the piece, which is otherwise its greatest success. There are a couple of jokes about multiple sclerosis and Bell’s palsy that are only saved from tastelessness by the light-heartedness of the rest of the performance, and a few fluffed lines and fumbled props are swept aside by the general cheer. Overall it does a great job of getting the audience in a good mood for the rest of the night, but I felt the play’s ultimate poignancy makes a slighter impact than intended. 90 copies of the ‘script’ are passed around the auditorium during the final scene and the rustle of paper obscures the last lines and feels a little wasteful.
The second play of the first half is Susan Glaspell’s Trifles, written in 1916 and considered a rediscovered classic of American drama. The curtains are pulled back to reveal a bleakly naturalistic farmhouse kitchen as the county sheriff (a nice turn from Lucia McAnespie) arrives to investigate the murder of the farm’s owner, John Wright. While the menfolk search for evidence, two local women (Nicola Blackman and Joanna Kirkland) concern themselves with gathering the “trifles” that Wright’s wife, Minnie, has requested from gaol, and together they piece together the events that took place on the night of the murder. Theatrical tastes have changed since 1916, and Trifles now seems rather thumpingly obvious, relying as it does on a metaphorical link between a caged bird and a downtrodden housewife. The direction itself stagnates a bit here, as if naturalism leaves no room for innovation, and the decision to have Minnie Wright standing silently and dolefully on stage throughout feels a bit overwrought and unnecessary. There are a few moments where the audience giggle as they pick up on a revelation just before the characters on stage join the dots. That said, Trifles helps to clarify one of the main thematic connections between the three plays of the night and there is a certain power in its depressing, clear-eyed vision of women’s underappreciated position in society that rings true today.
Following the main interval, The Deer by Brooke Allen returns us to the present. Back on more comfortable ground here, Thorpe Baker’s direction once again makes intelligent use of the space, the wooden blocks of Cast of Characters now pushed together to become a school desk, a park bench, a bed and an unworldly stretch of road. Kettle shines once again as Clara, whose younger brother Russ (a cheeky, lovable McAnespie) is spiralling out of control as she tries to conduct a relationship with his teacher (Longhurst, in an unfortunately unflattering combo of flared blazer and cargo pants). The play begins as Clara’s car hits a deer in the road (Kirkland) and all the other scenes are filtered through a haze of uncertain memory. The relationship between Russ and Clara is lovely, simultaneously needle-sharp and tender. Here and throughout the dialogue is a charming, modern mixture of sardonic detachment and real heart. In an establishing scene between Russ and Clara, he asks her to choose between “pie” or “socks” for the rest of her life, and the ensuing half-jokey, half-serious debate tells us almost as much about the two characters’ lives as the weightily symbolic strangled canary in Minnie Wright’s sewing box told us about hers. Kirkland is both laugh-out-loud funny and heartbreakingly sad as the deer, the wisest of fools in a play full of wise fools.
Taken together, the three plays in Shutters explore the ways in which we tell stories, and the ways in which women’s stories are told, in a thought-provoking, bittersweet theatrical evening.
Shutters is playing at the Park Theatre until 3 August. For more information and tickets see the Park Theatre website.