Melbourne's Human Sacrifice Theatre has a strong interest in American drama. The specialisation delivers high-calibre naturalistic acting and authentic accents – by no means a given, even on our main stages.
The company returns after a four-year hiatus with a solid production of Brett C Leonard's The Long Red Road, which premiered in Chicago in 2010, directed by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman.
In the play, two estranged brothers are reunited. One is a Kansas mushroom farmer (Lee Mason), who lives in domestic frustration with a disabled wife (Marissa O'Reilly) and her daughter (Anjelica Angwin).
The other (Mark Diaco) absconded from life a decade previously, and has succumbed to the ravages of alcoholism on an Indian reservation halfway across the country.
There, he's mothered by an idealistic young teacher (Liza Meagher) and watched over by a laconic Native American barman (Red Horse), when a sudden crisis forces him to confront what he has been running from all these years.
Leonard's unrelentingly bleak play offers little sense of catharsis, and I'm not sure I liked it. It's as if the playwright has taken the architecture of Greek tragedy – the incest, the family torn asunder, the past crime and its unquenchable guilt – and leached all the lyricism away, leaving the dust and tumbleweeds of unvarnished realism.
That said, the climax achieves an excruciating, tragic potency, and there's enough scope in these struggling characters for some bruising performances.
I really admired the whole cast: Mason's curdled and controlling bitterness, the prison bars of O'Reilly's pain, the ugly detail of Diaco's addiction and its co-dependence on Meagher's saintliness; Angwin radiant with the purity of a teenager's faith, and Red Horse's earthy gravitas (it's wonderful to have a Native American Indian in the cast, and the indigenous musical finale sounds an abiding note the play might otherwise lack).
David Myles' sensitive direction is enhanced by an intimate traverse stage, which thrusts us into the heart of the lives on display, and his cast delivers an acting masterclass. While I wasn't wild about The Long Red Road itself, I wish every American play we staged here was performed with this level of assurance and flair. (Cameron Woodhead)
- The Age
Performances played with raw honesty
The Australian premiere of Brett C. Leonard’s The Long Red Road follows six individuals all facing their own demons and struggles.
Set in the heart of America, the name of the play is a Native American term for the journey toward redemption and inner peace. In this instance, the focus rests on the relationship between brothers Bob and Sam, and the effects of a tragic accident.
The first act begins with numerous mini-scenes peering into the lives of the six characters, and as such, the story moves at an incredibly slow pace. The attempts to provide insight into the turmoil and anguish they are facing result in actually knowing very little about these people, so until the end of the first act, I cared very little about these people. To be perfectly honest, I could have done without this act altogether and would have preferred to get right into the heart of the story found in the second act.
Having the stage set in the middle of the space with the audience on either side gave a voyeuristic feel to the show, with these characters’ lives on display for everyone, with nowhere for them to hide. The downside is, depending on where exactly you were seated, you could miss out on some small but pivotal moments as I did between characters Bob and Tasha.
The set design itself though worked well with the bedrooms of each home situated on opposite ends of the stage and the universal communal areas being shared in the middle of the space, giving you the sense of interconnectedness between these people. Another effective staging decision was the projections on both sides of the wall, further enhancing the environment we were in. In particular, this was perfectly executed in the final dramatic moments of the show.
Under the direction of David Myles, the whole cast does very well with their American accents and in their portrayals of the emotionally demanding characters. Anjelica Angwin and Marissa O’Reilly’s unfortunately few scenes together spoke volumes with very little dialogue in their relationship as estranged mother and daughter, Sandra and Tasha. Liza Meagher as the innocent Annie is a nice contrast to the damaged Sam, played by Mark Diaco. Diaco and Lee Mason (Bob) are the standouts as the two siblings who play their roles with raw honesty and convincing emotion. Rounding out the cast is Red Horse as Clifton, who also performs the evocatively haunting musical score for the play.
The Long Red Road is a tragic story about the effects of alcohol not only on individuals but also on those around them and in some aspects, on society itself. Some excellent performances and highly effective technical designs make it worth getting through those first forty minutes.
The Long Red Road is a play that sneaks up on you and finally grabs you by the throat.
At first, you don’t know what the hell is going on. Somewhere in Kansas, a bitter mushroom farmer, Bob (Lee Mason), worn down and soured by duty, has a fractious relationship with Sandra (Marissa O’Reilly), a woman crippled in both her legs. Her defiant daughter, Tasha (Angelica Angwin) tells Bob she hates him. Seven hundred miles away, on or near a Lakota tribe reservation, self-destructive alcoholic Sam (Mark Diaco) drinks himself into oblivion in a bar run by Clifton (Red Horse), a taciturn Lakota chief, and lives with absurdly patient, loving and hopeful school teacher, Annie (Liza Meagher). The scenes in both locations are short, crisp and employ cinematic juxtapositions. No one is happy, except maybe Annie and she’s whistling in the dark. It’s the most pessimistic Americana and the sense of unrelieved misery goes on perhaps too long. It’s not until two thirds of the way through Act One that things click into place with a revelation – or the confirmation of a growing suspicion. I’ll say no more about the story because this is a play with a story and its developments and revelations keep coming. That’s how it gets you.All five cast are excellent – although Lee Mason’s mid-West (?) accent lost me occasionally. All the same, his portrait of a good man simmering with anger, nursing resentments all his life, a man who wants to leave, but won’t - or can’t – is moving and then frightening when the anger erupts. Marissa O’Reilly’s role is small, but she is powerful: as she sits hunched in her wheelchair, she exudes all the ambivalence of a woman who still loves the man who crippled her. Liza Meagher gives her Annie a kind of vulnerable sweetness from her very first line. We know she’s going to be hurt and will go on being hurt and we wish we could protect her. A tiny scene in which we see her teaching her school class – many of them Lakota kids – and trying to put a sugary gloss on their people’s history tells us much about her.
Angelica Angwin is a thoroughly convincing teen – a mix of smarts and poignant naiveté. In the second Act, it is her scenes with Mark Diaco that get you by the throat. Mr Diaco’s Sam, a war veteran asking for trouble – and he gets it: he wants to be punished – should get tiresome, but he doesn’t. This is a fabulous performance in which you simply have to feel for a character in such pain. Red Horse’s role is also small but important and he brings a quiet dignity to it. He’s Sam’s confidant and tries to be his mentor. It is from him that Sam learns of the ‘long red road’ – the Sioux term for ‘the journey towards redemption and inner peace’ – according to the programme notes.
If I have reservations about this production, the first might be that the Native American connection is laid on rather thick and its substance (title aside) rather thin. Sam, after all, could drink himself to death anywhere and his confidant could be any patient barman. It seems to me that Brett C Leonard tries to give his story – essentially a family drama – another layer, but it doesn’t quite convince, despite Red Horse’s haunting flute music at the play’s end.
Second, director David Myles has made some curious choices in his use of the fortyfivedownstairs space. He puts the audience either side of the playing space with the result that some important action is simply masked from one side or the other and some of Lucas Silva-Myles lights (otherwise subtle and skilfully directing our attention) light up the audience instead of the players. Then the shifts from Kansas to Lakota territory mean the audience turning from one end of the playing area to the other and back again, often leaving the actors in one or the other space having to get off without distracting the audience from the next scene. But no one can doubt that Mr Myles has elicited fabulous performances from his wonderful cast and it is they who make this sad tale live.
- Stage Whispers