Summer of the Aliens is one of a set of Louis Nowra’s plays that have a semi-autobiographical story to tell. The sparklingly original Cosi is another one of that set, and so I was looking forward to seeing Aliens which I didn’t know, although it is apparently regarded as one of his best plays. It has not only won the 1990 Prix Italia for Fiction (as an ABC radio play), but is also a text regularly set for school study.
But for me it comes too close to being a coming-of-age play by numbers to be totally absorbing. Act I sets up a number of situations with predictable outcomes out they come in Act II, overlaid with clunky metaphors that play on the double meanings of aliens and angels. All of this however is tempered by a workmanlike production under the direction of Fred Wessely and co-director Jo Pierce.
The struggles within and between various generations are played out with style by a cast ably headed by Julian Curtis as the young, alien-obsessed protagonist, Lewis, and Bree Pickering as his tempestuous and tormented girl friend and would-be girlfriend, Dulcie. Again, as a matter of taste, I found the character of Lewis a bit too bland. However the talented Curtis makes the most of his role, as does Glen Male, who plays the older, reflective Lewis, the Narrator of the events that took place in the summer of ’62. And they are certainly offset by some very abrasive personalities, particularly Lewis’ friend Brian (played by Gerrard Woodward), who bullies others as a way of masking his own insecurities, and Dulcie’s stepfather Stan, whose brutality is akin to that of the other Stanley, his American namesake in A Streetcar Named Desire. James Fitzgerald is both an extremely unpleasant Stan and slightly confusingly at first also Lewis’ more complex and itinerant dad Eric.
Other dual roles are played by Mark Tsang and Julie Bray. Tsang brings a light touch to both his parts, the sharply-etched Mr Pisano (an increasingly mad and sad migrant postman), and the Aussie uncle with a penchant for Oriental women, while Bray is the most successful in drawing the distinctions between her two parts, both in performance and appearance. While a rather young Grandma, she gives the requisite anxiety and anguish to the part of an elderly person in fear of loosing her mind; and her portrayal of a wife (Stan’s) and mother (Dulcie’s) in denial is a consummate one.
The cast is rounded out by Carol Baker as Lewis’ careworn mother, Leila Rodgers as his somewhat distanced sister, and Melinda Buttle as Beatrice, the other sort of alien on a couple of counts: a non-English speaking Dutch migrant student with a vestigial arm hidden under her jumper. Flitting through is the non-speaking Oriental exotic, played by Fran Smith.
As a production there are some inconsistencies which are mildly intrusive. While Graham McKenzie’s basic stage setting is, for example, a clever evocation of the era in which the play is set, it is divided into three locations (two indoor and one garden) where some, but not all of the action takes place. And it is a bit confusing to find from time to time that the actors are actually in a field far away from any buildings.
Similarly, at times the actors are given props with which to perform bits of business while at other times and somewhat unnecessarily they are not, and are reduced to a form of mime that is more than a bit distracting. Then there is the matter of dress. While some of the females get to change their clothes, others don’t. This impacts most significantly on the part of Lewis’ sister, Bev, who has to stay in the same bright dress throughout events covering quite a protracted period of time, and through a role that could grow a little more than it’s allowed to, in this and other ways.
Such quibbles aside, this play with its pointed insights into vintage Melbourne suburbia has a lot to offer, especially for those who feel that Nowra can write no wrong, and for students who have been set this play as a school text.