How to Survive an Earthquake.

How to Survive an Earthquake.
Written by Christine Croyden. Directed by Glenda Linscott. Presented by Melbourne Writers’ Theatre. La Mama Courthouse (Vic). Until September 1, 2013.

On the surface, Ms Croyden’s reunion drama about two sisters Stephanie (Jessica Gerger) and Jane (Sarah Plummer) reuniting on the eve of their mother’s funeral wears its dark and damaged heart immovably on its sleeve. There is the typical point-scoring banter about who did what to whom and how much more difficult life has been for one more so than the other. The sisters’ differences are established early, when in a vitriolic character assassination, Stephanie (a UN peacekeeper returning home to Melbourne from Haiti) sets Jane (who has cared for their ailing mother) up for the fall that she inevitably takes.

But gradually, Ms Croyden’s script, in a fantastic, revelatory production from Ms Linscott, reveals itself to be a far more richly layered, complex and compelling study of betrayal – not only of the genetic and metaphorical sisterhood, but also of ideals and principles.

Nothing is as it seems, a point beautifully highlighted by the very different character their mother becomes when each of the sisters ‘play’ her. To Stephanie, she was an almost mystical, crook-backed witch, while for Jane, she was a warmly-spoken, caring and considerate woman who only ever wanted the best for her precious daughters. In another fine and telling moment, Jane only finds the present her sister brought home for her by going through her suitcase. It, nor the medication Jane also discovers, is never spoken about. Instead, it becomes more evidence that these two sisters will, instead, rage against the circumstances of a single injustice rather than be able to honestly talk with each other about the women they have become as a result.

Where many plays of this kind are eventually (if not entirely) sacrificed on the altar of interminable cliché, How to Survive an Earthquake explores the darkest examples of violence (physical and psychological) against women that renders these sisters unable to communicate honestly with each other about the single act in their respective lives, that has not only censored and silenced them, but altered the course of their lives forever.

For anyone who has been betrayed, who has heard and felt their heart break, that act of spiritual and psychological decapitation has the power to rule over the rest of your life. It is this rich vein of human reconditioning that concerns Ms Croyden’s, and even if the script might have benefited from a judicious edit, the layers are finely wrought, precariously balanced, and brilliantly directed.

Ms Gerger and Ms Plummer are outstanding as the two sisters. Rarely offstage, their commitment to the honest portrayal of these damaged but determined women is utterly impressive. The male villains of the piece suffer from being thinly-drawn, and employed more as dramatic devices than characters equal to the women they have harmed. It is ultimately impossible to see what Jane saw in her ex-husband Jake (Andrew Robb), while Wayne Pearn’s Haiti-based French soldier carries the can for the crimes against women in warzones. (The Haiti-based scenes are so loaded and truncated that there might even be a stand-alone play to be written by Ms Croyden about those two characters.)

But what powers this work immeasurably is the astonishing live score and soundscape from the extraordinary The Berlin Sirens. No dinky, folksy, guitar-strumming this. This is a fantastic, symphonic synchronicity, possibly the best I have experienced in independent theatre. The devastating Haitian earthquake is delivered in seat-trembling terror and the tiny heartbeat of a newborn baby is realised equally perfectly by a faint drumbeat. Transitions from one scene to another are divinely accompanied, and a standout wailing ballad is almost impossibly affecting and musically quite brilliant. It is great work from this ensemble who are, astonishingly, making their soundtrack/soundscape debut with this production. Their future is assured.

Emily Collet’s set and costume design is just perfect – never less than at full service to the play, while Jason Bovaird’s lighting design matches Dom Buckham and Millie O’Sullivan’s sound design sublimely. I haven’t seen a production in years that is so superbly matched by its creative intelligence and sophistication technically – and the little Courthouse Theatre obviously relishes the opportunity to have its physical boundaries challenged by such inspirational passion and skill.

And if the play’s final moment, within a heart-melting fade to black, doesn’t reduce you to tears, then great drama possibly isn’t your thing.

Geoffrey Williams 

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