A Conversation

Concourse Theatre, September 9

Convesation res
Alexandra Fowler and Glenn Hazeldine. Photo: Clare Hawley.

The second instalment of David Williamson’s Jack Manning Trilogy ups the stakes. Where Face To Face dealt with workplace vendettas and gripes via the hyper-real depiction of community conferencing, the benignly-titled A Conversation seethes around a barbarous rape and murder. Containing the raging emotions this engenders within a conferencing scenario creates a more formidable challenge for playwright, director and cast.

Director Sandra Bates ensures we immediately share the air of unease by leaving the house lights up as the characters reluctantly join Jack, the facilitator (Glen Hazeldine), using the theatre aisles.

Seams show in the writing during the early exposition, and Williamson strikes an over-long stalemate between anger and defensiveness. The anger belongs to Barbara (Merran Doyle) and especially Derek (Mark Lee), the parents whose daughter was raped, brutalised and left to die. The defensiveness comes from the absent perpetrator’s mother (Jo-Anne Cahill), sister (Erica Lovell) brother (Anthony Gee) and uncle (Peter Phelps).

Only once Lorin, the psychologist who wrongly recommended the perpetrator, Scott, be paroled (after two previous violent rape convictions) is rounded on from both sides, does the drama coagulate. Then the absence of Scott (in jail) becomes a black hole at the play’s centre, sucking the other characters towards its precipice, and thereby (via the phlegmatic and empathetic Jack) toward some level of catharsis.

The problem Williamson has created, and that Bates and her cast cannot quite solve, is the fairly static – if elevated! – emotional trajectory. The set-up does not allow the playwright’s wit to aerate the dialogue, and, while the retreading of ground already trod may be true to life, it wears in a theatre. When the tension is relieved it is with Barbara’s anecdotes about her dead daughter, and these seem slightly lame for such a pivotal moment.

Nonetheless Bates’ production (for Ensemble Theatre) is compelling. Her scoring of some dialogue so it overlaps is highly effective and deftly executed, and the cast is strong enough to sometimes impale us on the grief and to let us feel the flicker of relief, hope and warmth exuded primarily by the mothers, Barbara and Coral. Yet ultimately the play and production do not quite excavate the deep truths mined in Face To Face (admittedly in more yielding soil), and cannot quite reach the almost unbearably harrowing pitch implied.

Until September 27.