The gist of Richard Baer’s Mixed Emotions contains more than a passing resemblance to Innocence, the 1999 Australian feature film starring Bud Tingwell and Julia Blake. In the movie, two 60-somethings discover a late-in-life match that defies not only society’s but their own preconceptions of love and lust. In this play, like the film, two people are given the unexpected chance to reconsider and resize their lives.
Mixed Emotions opens on Ralph and Chuck (David Coleman and Chris Carroll), removalists hired to dismantle the house Christine Millman (Dianne Adams) and her late husband made a family home for three decades. It has been one year and a day since Christine’s husband died and his best mate Herman (Ray Turner) has appeared at the tail end of the removals to pay his respects, only to learn he has missed the anniversary. From this early point we observe the differences in Christine and Herman. He’s forgetful, she’s fastidious, he’s forthright, she’s reserved. Just as importantly, we find similiarities in the two. Both have lost their spouses recently and have been living alone, an adjustment we learn neither has made smoothly or happily.
Hence, Melburnian Christine has decided on a sea change, to move to the Gold Coast and make a new start. What begins as a friendly goodbye unpredictably intensifies, and both are confronted with their past, and future happiness. Christine isn’t the contented and confident woman she appeared at first. Her facade bit by bit crumbles before the audience as the family photos, ornaments and furniture disappear through the doorway. Herman is desperate to stall Christine’s departure and show his true feelings for her. The impulsive, cavalier Herman seems to have no complement in the unaffected, business-as-usual bussle of Christine, but inextricably, a chemistry builds. As the first act closes, Christine and Herman realise they may not be so different in their fears and dreams after all.
Director Sandra Harle has steered a cast through this play previously and I suspect the earlier production, like this one, was superb. Harle achieves a tricky balance of sensitivity and straightforwardness in this ironically provocative piece of theatre: sex and the city for the elderly couldn’t be more deftly and heartwarmingly handled. With only two leads and not much else to work with, the success of this play very much relies on a thorough reading and intelligent, thoughtful delivery, which is precisely what Front Row Theatre offers.
If it wasn’t for too many stammered lines in the second act, an overzealous prompter early on, or encroaching traffic noise, the delivery of what is essentially a two-hour dialogue would have been flawless, or close enough to it. Adams relays both warmth and apprehension as a woman on the brink of living her life all over again, delivering an effortless, sincere and supremely convincing performance. Turner comfortably becomes the irrepressible Herman, managing to be frustrating and endearing at the same time; a scatterbrain with his heart in the right place. At times he’s almost suave. Both leads so accurately and achingly convey the confusion and warmth at the heart of this brilliant script that it’s hard to find much, if anything at all lacking in their performances.
At first, Coleman and Carroll are merely distractions to the increasingly complicated dynamic between Christine and Herman, but we quickly value their fly-on-the-wall perspective. Both men fill their roles simply and strongly, and it is because of this we can share their incredulity and surprise at the relationship that unfolds.
While it certainly is a struggle throughout Mixed Emotions for Christine and Herman to work out where they stand, to reconcile with the loss of their partners and best friends, and to weigh their chance at happiness against societal expectations, it couldn’t be easier for me to commend Front Row Theatre’s current production as a splendid achievement. With premier performances, thoroughly capable directing and the assistance of a dreamy soundtrack, the innocence and beauty of an elderly couple’s journey in life and love makes a very special piece of theatre indeed.