Often, getting to your seat at La Mama means walking through the set. Here it’s a rather homely, slightly older room we tread through, not unlike a time capsule. We’re in the present day, but there are still cassette tapes by the stereo, along with other quaint ephemera.
There’s the sound of cicadas, three adults milling about the space – Deb, Vicky, and Jack. They’re siblings and they’re having a difficult conversation. Something has to be done about mother. Playwright, Michael Griffith, has certainly crafted a dilemma with plenty of emotional heft.
There’s a lovely monologue early on about the Magnolia flower – their mother’s favourite – resilient in the face of destructive forces, but left to go by itself will go swiftly without lingering. If it’s meant to be used a metaphor, it doesn’t quite work (aren’t the children the wind?), which is possibly why it never returns to the text.
The other slight wrinkle is that while Michael does his darnedest near the end to frame the argument his characters are having in compassionate terms, it never truly shakes itself free of the fact this long conversation only starts because they didn’t want her money to be used to pay for a home to care for her, when it could go to them instead.
Rohana Hayes played Deb in a curious mix of naivety and Norma Desmond-level presence. There was a lot of restraint in her performance, which helped with the intensity in a few places, but hindered also in others. Some moments died on the vine – queuing and reactions too slow – while other violent turns (such as sweeping the table clear of rest home brochures) were too soft and not visceral enough.
Helen Hopkins was Deb’s sister, Vicky. Helen did well in portraying someone whose last few years have been hard, taking on the responsibility of caring for their mother day and night.
Jack, their brother, was played by Ezra Bix. One of the nice things about his performance was the energy he brought when getting louder. The reality of this house is that there is an old woman asleep upstairs, but Jack was the only one of the three to raise their voice in that slightly raspy way that someone does when trying to be quiet, yet earnest.
There was a lot of – for lack of a better term – ‘soap opera’ blocking, where two actors would be talking, yet both looking in the same direction. It robbed these scenes of any genuine tension, which was a shame as when the actors did turn and face each other, the script would come alive and scenes really got compelling.
The gimmick at the end was definitely a surprise, and not one I’m sure was absolutely necessary tone-wise considering the realism sought in the preceding action. It seemed strange to take all that heart-rending drama and ultimately turn it into a kind of parlour game.
The Magnolia Tree
La Mama Theatre, 205 Faraday Street, Carlton
Performance: Wednesday 17 May 2017 – 6.30pm
Season continues to 28 May 2017
Information and Bookings: www.lamama.com.au
Image: Rohana Hayes, Ezra Bix and Helen Hopkins feature in The Magnolia Tree
Review: David Collins