Independent Theatre
Goodwood Institute Theatre
Until 24 Nov 2018

Review by John Wells

Independent Theatre’s last production of 2018 is an anti-climax: Thomas Wolfe’s creaking old play is a tedious family melodrama punctuated by a few moments of excellent acting.

Eliza Gant is a domineering, greedy old broad, who runs the low-rent Dixieland boarding house and keeps her kowtowed family under control by manipulation and aggression. Her husband hates her. Her sons and daughters resent her. Only her youngest son Gene has the ability to see a world outside of the run-down flophouse. When the beautiful, delicate stranger Laura alights from the train and takes a room at the Dixieland, he sees his opportunity to escape.

The conflicts and resolutions of this over-long and ponderous play are unsatisfying. Rob Croser’s direction is clear but his experience and control cannot bring much interest to the dated text and the increasingly annoying ructions of the Gant family. There is plenty of drama – anger, recriminations, boozing, love, death, regret and trainspotting! – but the action is lacklustre and dreary.

The production is given the old jolt into life by some sporadically wonderful performances. David Roach is animated and caustic as the sodden father W.O. Grant. The production lifts whenever he is on stage. His scene with the aging Madame (Pam O’Grady) is delightful: acerbic and funny with an edge of sadness. Bronwyn Ruciak (Eliza) has all the dramatic heavy lifting, and does a good job with the cumbersome material. She is particularly convincing in showing Eliza’s sense of bewildered betrayal when she realizes her family all despise her. Madeleine Herd (Laura) finds depth in a superficially-written role; there are moments of delightful warmth and stillness in her performance. Will Cox (Gene) perfectly captures the slouched shoulders and hangdog look of the surly, trapped teenager, although his final emoting feels shrill rather than wounded.

The production values are impressive; Croser and Roach’s excellent timber set is engagingly lit by Bob Weatherly, and Sandra Davis’ fine costumes ensure the ensemble looks lovely. The musical choices blend well with the action. These artistic successes, and the odd powerful scene are sadly not enough to lift this production beyond the pedestrian.