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Melissa Jaffer and Pacharo Mzembe in Gwen in Purgatory ... images by Michael Corridore.

POSTED: 07 AUGUST 2010

Gwen in Purgatory, by Tommy Murphy

La Boite Theatre Company & Company B | Belvoir Street Theatre, Surry Hills, Sydney | Until 19 September

Tommy Murphy’s latest play is a witty, potent comedy and a vicious representation of the modern family and our aging-population problem. The play is a product of the Philip Parson Award for emerging playwrights, and is generously supported by Belvoir Street Theatre’s Company B.

Gwen (Melissa Jaffer) is a 90-year-old great-grandmother who has lived her entire life in Queanbeyan, but when the play opens we see her recently relocated in a display home on a yet-to-be-settled subdivision.

She lives alone, apart from the inanimate objects that accompany her existence. Telephones, fan-forced oven and air-conditioner all vie for her attention and Gwen struggles to interact with them all.

It is a lonely place and Steven Curtis’s set reflects this... new and shiny but sterile and sanitised. Unpacked boxes reflect the transience of the situation.

As the title suggests, Gwen is now is purgatory, a temporary place for souls who are in need of forgiveness. Father Ezekiel, charismatically and authentically played by Pacharo Mzembe, arrives to bless the house.

He is also displaced, recently arrived from Nigeria, homesick and eager to communicate with his family via Skype. Instead, he becomes a witness to the dysfunction of Gwen’s family as they one-by-one reveal their need for individuality and independence.

It is family at its worst and it is not just Father Ezeikel who is embarrassed as Gwen’s middle-aged children, Peg (Sue Ingleton) and Laurie (Grant Dodwell), squabble over domestic trivia.

This is a compassionate drama which examines our duty of care to the rapidly aging Australian population. It is prickly for everyone, but Tommy Murphy’s dialogue is subtle and well crafted and sprinkled with common humour that allows us to laugh constantly with the characters.

There is a also a much deeper theme underpinning the drama — that of disputed memories and opposing interpretations of shared history and shared identity — and it is this that provides the darkest mirth.

Grandson Daniel (Nathaniel Dean) is at first cast in the role of knight in shining armour, but as the play progresses he has to arm wrestle seedy Laurie to restore and renovate Gwen’s and Pop’s car. This car is the dramatic vehicle which drives the imperative for independence for Gwen and connection and continuance for Daniel.

Jaffer is both vivacious and chirpy as Gwen, presenting an excellent depiction of a controlling old woman, struggling with loneliness and her fears of abandonment, but managing to make it seem comic. Indeed all the characters are warmly drawn but well observed, warts and all.

Technology is another essential character in the drama. It appears to make Gwen’s life easier, if only she could master it, and it enables estranged family members to communicate over distance with one and other.  But when it goes wrong — as we know from all the dystopic tales we have read — it is ugly.

Neil Armitage, in, sadly, his penultimate role as director for Belvoir, is empathically and sympathetically aware of his duty of care towards the universal themes of co-dependent family relationships, the nature of love and obligations to care for the elderly, and the need for people to live their own lives.

This story is life affirming and perennial and reminds us, whether we want to be reminded or not, that loneliness and mortality are almighty forces in human life.


CLICK HERE to watch Gwen in Purgatory trailer.