October 01, 1996

Past Lives

Good Works
Nick Enright
in association with Adelaide Festival Centre Trust

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

It has been too long since Nick Enright’s writing has featured on the Adelaide stage. Can it be On the Wallaby -back in 1981 ? So far, recent works such as A Property of the Clan and Blackrock have not been seen here, although we will soon be seeing double with State Theatre’s revival of his adaptation of The Venetian Twins coming up in December.

Good Works is a strong play which, perhaps with an eye for touring portability, director Kim Durban and designer Hugh Colman have kept crisp and simple. This means that the focus and interest is on the performances and the uncluttered presentation of narratives spanning from country town to Australian city between 1928 and 1981.

The two families of Enright’s saga- the hard luck Kennedys and the more genteel Donovans – embody the impact of Irish Catholicism in this century. Educated by nuns, the orphan Mary Margaret resists the call to vocation but instead promises to become a model of pious motherhood. Her childhood chum Rita Kennedy is a less tractable candidate, however. Frank in her sexuality and headstrong in her judgements she soon falls foul of the pinched morality of small town small talk.

Betrothed to Neil Donovan while he is away at the war Rita finds that when he returns to civilian life, under pressure from his family, he marries Mary Margaret instead. In reaction Rita marries Eddie Grogan, a minor crook- and mean and violent into the bargain. It ends badly, of course, and their son Shane has a neglected and turbulent childhood as a consequence.

Enright’s narrative is a series of convulsive flashbacks and intercuts. The play opens in a gay bar where Tim Donovan, an opera repetiteur, encounters a stranger whom he thinks he recognises. He calls himself John, but Tim Donovan, child of Neil and Mary Margaret, believes him to be Shane, his childhood friend with whom he shares a deadly secret.

Good Works is a skein of crossed lines, disclosures, coincidences and manifest destinies. As we trace the sequence of events which brings Shane and Tim back into contact we are left to question the values and quandaries, the deliberate malice and accidental cruelties which have caused lasting grief to the two families. The playwright is unsparing of the prejudice and puritanism which governs their lives and results in the separate and irreconcilable miseries of two kids in a country town.

Playbox has assembled a fine cast for Good Works. Maggie Dence is chilling as the unforgiving Mrs Kennedy and vivid as the censorious Mrs Donovan. Robert Essex, in a range of minor roles, brings particular focus to Brother Clement, the sadistic teacher who makes Tim’s life a misery, providing grim reminder that while currently there is recrimination about sexual abuse in the Catholic church, the common and garden physical abuse was also barbaric and unacceptable.

In the roles of Mary Margaret and Rita, Vanessa Dowling and Helen Morse are memorable. Dowling’s Mary, the insecure orphan craving approval grows believably into an unworldly woman unable to face any threat to her domestic stability. As Rita, Helen Morse gives a well-judged portrayal, capturing both the vitality of the character and the effects of her ostracism. This is some of her best work for a while.

Paul English and Greg Stone have some initial hesitations in defining the childhood scenes but their depictions of Tim and Shane have intelligent detail. Stone is disturbing as the adult Shane and convincing in his child’s terror. Tim’s sheltered but uncertain world is also well charted, both in Enright’s text, where the boy’s sensitivity and precarious gender identity is harshly dealt with, and in Paul English’s excellent performance.

There are times when the play strains under the complexity of its plotting, and the final confrontation between Tim and Shane over the death of Brother Clement is oddly incomplete. But Good Works is more than redeemed by the scope of its implication. Nick Enright has not just dramatised the lives of two families, he has re-entered an almost invisible social history which director Kim Durban and a fine cast have brought to disturbing reality.

The Adelaide Review,No.157, October, 1996.p.36.

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