I’m unclear as to why the title of this play borrows from Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address, which seems so remote. (I’m also unclear as to how a second inaugural address is even remotely possible, but that’s a whole other thing.) Perhaps it’s pointing to the send phrase of Lincoln’s speech, which suggests charity for all. Certainly, charity is due, but not often afforded, to the kinds of people so vividly portrayed in Malice Toward None.
The play isn’t really a play at all, but three-in-one: a series of vignettes oriented around addicts and addiction; the human face of addiction.
The first is a monologue by Cathy, an actress. She doesn’t mind the term actress. Which isn’t to say she isn’t a feminist, she protests. She’s not surprised we might dismiss her as an “ugly cunt” with delusions of grandeur. She’s probably heard that a lot. After all, here she is, in her Chooky Dancers’ tracky dax, looking a little less than glam. Her hair’s matted; skin sallow; mouth foul with abuse. Then again, her whole body is foul with abuse. She’s quick to point out it’s not dope, though. It’s methadone. Yes, she’s addicted to the “cure”. But in her eyes, she’s not an addict, she’s an actress, with the agent to prove it. She’s even got work. And, just like Marlon Brando, with whom she’s mildly obsessed, she’s working on her method; doing her research. it’s a tough role. She has to play an addict. And she’s throwing herself headlong into the world of the addict, following the ‘silk road’, from Central to the Cross, to score.
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It’s easy to laugh at Cathy, but harder to laugh with her. Self-delusion is about the only affirmative thing in her life to which she can cling. As long as an actress, playing a role to the best of her ability, she’s not an addict. It’s easy to empathise with her, despite her in-your-face, volatile, demonstrable presence. She progressively unfurls a chicken-and-egg tale of woe that would have just about anyone reaching for something, to dull, or obliterate, the pain. She’s repeatedly raped by an malodorous bear. It’s to settle her account.
Skye Wansey is arresting and absorbing as Cathy; more than that, this is the kind of performance that leaves indelible marks on one’s psyche. She offers a credible, sympathetic picture of a tragically addicted woman, struggling to transcend her affliction. Her character finds solace and friendship where others would only see exploitation. She harbours a soft spot for another of her connections, despite the fact he’s hit her, repeatedly. As she explains, if you’re already dosed-up, you don’t feel anything. Underneath a coarse, necessarily hard shell is a sweet person with reasonable dreams and aspirations.
The second monologue, while well-performed by David Askill, struck me as drawing a slightly longer bow, notwithstanding (as with Cathy) some foundation in the real experience of writer-director, Chris Aronsten. It’s a little harder to relate to a pensioner bolstering his income by running a regional network of people who present with would-be flu symptoms to doctors, in order to obtain prescriptions for pseudoephedrine, which is passed on to icemakers (the drug, not hard water). Pete, the pensioner, confesses his gambling addiction, while taking us on a somewhat circuitous, less-than-gripping wild goose chase, track his mounting frustrations and encroachment towards the brink. It doesn’t have the equivalent pathos of Cathy’s predicament and is a little weighed-down by an overly complex yarn.
The third piece is a two-hander. Jane is a pedantic (nay, dangerously obsessive) lesbian bureaucrat. She looks severe. She is. Trouble at work comes in the form of little more than a dirty teaspoon left in the office kitchen-sink. Trouble at home comes in the form of her partner’s all-out desperation to find the perfect sperm donor and a rival who threatens to pounce on said partner, given the slightest opening. Then there’s Jane’s elderly mum, the bug-eyed Janet. ‘Janet wants a carrot!’ Janet wants a lot of carrots. The only thing Janet will eat is carrots. And it shows. In her complexion.
There’s a neat, satisfying circle drawn back to the first ‘act’, inasmuch as, while Cathy may need to disguise her downtrodden status as an addict in the guise of being an actress, Jane’s self-delusion is much more profound. She can’t, for the life of her, see past her mother’s obsession with carrots, to see her own paralysing obsessions. Wood obscured by trees. But it’s Jane, the upstanding, successful member of the trio, the one accepted and celebrated by society, who steps over the line, destroying her workplace and, consequently, career. Control is relinquished, just as surely as Cathy’s is, to methadone, or Pete’s, to taking big chances.
Aronsten has outdone himself, particularly with the first and third movements of this dramatic symphony. His casting is almost visionary and writing, for the most part, substantive, with roots deep in the fertile soil of truth, but imbued with just enough whimsy, wit and poetic licence as to play as well in the theatre as these stories must’ve, in his mind, she he first encountered them.
He might’ve borrowed the seeds, but the fruits are all his own. Fleshy, ripe and succulent.
The details: Malice Toward None plays the Old Fitzroy Theatre in Woolloomooloo until June 16. Tickets on the venue website.