Belvoir St Theatre, August 24


Nadine Garner and Tom Conroy. Photos: Brett Boardman.

Suddenly it congeals. We are well into Act Two when Jonathan re-enters with a neck spasm, and that excruciating movement instantly conveys all the piteousness of his plight. Having sympathised with Jonathan from the start, now we empathise, and the emotional connection is real, raw and deeply affecting. If Tom Conroy’s portrayal of Jonathan had been good all along, now it was exceptional.

It’s a role that could so easily be overcooked; become what another character refers to as “an allegory of horror”. Jonathan suffers from schizophrenia, and the terrors his condition holds for him must be brought to life, alongside the sorrow and exasperation it holds for those around him – especially his mother, Anne (Nadine Garner). Her capacity for love, patience and forgiveness are tested to an extreme that few parents ever know.

Tom Conroy. Photos: Brett Boardman.

Anne is the late Anne Deveson, the renowned writer, broadcaster and documentary film-maker, who detailed her oldest child’s crucifying illness in her brave, compelling and moving memoir Tell Me I’m Here, first published in 1991. This was a major work illuminating the nature of the malady, the inadequacy of the health sector’s response, and the fearful ignorance of some quacks and of the community at large.

Now Veronica Nadine Gleeson has adapted this into a play, directed by Leticia Caceres. While it is capable of being heartrending and funny, somehow it seldom achieves the book’s blinding intensity. Until that Act Two moment of brilliance from Conroy, I’d wondered whether this lack of intensity lay in the performances. No. I suspect Gleeson has been too reverential to the book’s linear form – for the good reason that it’s true! Yet perhaps a deeper truth of the book was within reach had the piecemeal nature of such a multiplicity of scenes been forsaken in favour of some longer ones that were allowed to build.

Nadine Garner and Tom Conroy. Photos: Brett Boardman.

If Conroy’s role is a challenge because it would be easy to overdo, Garner’s role is so for the opposite reason. In her ideal world, Anne would keep everything on a tight leash, but Jonathan is the eternal stray who can’t be trained. Garner has to draw our sympathy while playing the stoic who resents that her wayward son can make her lose control of her neatly compartmentalised emotions. It’s a tricky balancing act, and one that Garner may master yet more thoroughly as she feels out her audiences.

Caceres has done a fine job of casting the piece, with Sean O’Shea shining as two of Anne’s partners and assorted other roles including a Mohawk-haired punk. Deborah Galanos, Raj LaBade and Jana Zvedeniuk complete the strong cast.

Choreographer Charmene Yap has apparently played a key role in helping Conroy develop Jonathan’s physicality, while set designer Stephen Curtis has made the white-box, book-lined space all Anne’s, within which he and Caceres allow Conroy to express Jonathan’s psychosis through drawing – essentially graffitiing the set.

Tom Conroy. Photos: Brett Baordman.

Anne is a marvellous contrast to Jonathan because she’s so crisp and articulate, while also being the progenitor of his flashes of wit and laughably formal politeness. Then there are key moments when Anne is rendered speechless and Jonathan becomes lucid, making such observations as, “I’m actually fine. Everyone else is sick” – which carries considerable perspicacity in relation to some medical decision-makers. Another time he asks, “Do you think anything is wrong with my heart? I think it’s broken.” It was. He was dead at 24 – “an instrument too fine-tuned to bear the vicissitudes of life”.

Until September 25.