Walking by Apple Tree Creek

(La Boite Theatre)


Professional production

Apple Tree Creek is a real place, a tiny village very close to Childers on the Bruce Highway. It’s famous for its dance hall, but there’s not much else to see, and most tourists only stop there because of Max Blochliger-Jabs’ Exotic Jam Factory, where they can buy conserves and jellies made from jaboticaba, cab-sav grapes, rhubarb, or strawberries with cracked pepper.

For the Grey Nomad (“Adventure before Dementia”) Brigade, therefore, it’s an optional stop, but Del and Stan Holloway (Carol Burns and Bob Newman) find themselves stranded there in their old Winnebago, because her longed-for adventure has morphed into his dementia, and there’s nowhere to go except back into the past.

This is an exceptionally fine new play by Brisbane’s Ian Brown, driven by character and situation rather than plot. In fact, it’s more of a monologue for female actor, because Del has the only dialogue, to which her sad husband, rendered speechless and unresponsive by Parkinson’s disease and dementia, cannot (or chooses not to) respond.

To give all the dialogue to a single character is a dangerous dramatic device, risking the possibility that the play will come across as one-sided, but Bob Newman is marvellous here, for it’s never clear whether Stan is deliberately not responding to Del’s constant nattering, or whether he is subtly punishing her for some unknown reason. There’s just enough ambiguity in his behaviour, whether it’s in the lift of the eyebrow or his awkward stance, to make the audience uncomfortable, and he’s the perfect foil for Carol Burns’s outstanding performance. If he were not there, the play would be little more than a brief sketch, hardly worthy of the full production it’s been given.

Credit must also be given to Bruce McKinven’s design, simple but never simplistic, where the beat-up rusting motor home sits as awkwardly as its owners, and provides the perfect foil for the sad winding-up of their active lives and, possibly, their marriage. The set underpins and also enhances the theme of the play, as does Jason Organ’s brilliant opening lighting sequence, where a back-projection makes us scarily experience Stan’s all-over-the-road driving technique. It’s one of the cleverest opening scenes I’ve seen in a long time.

None of this is meant to detract from the pure genius of Carol Burns’s performance though, for she shows here that she is the consummate actor. As they age, many female actors take on roles that are more and more stereotyped, but in the last two years alone Burns has given us Queen Jocasta in Oedipus Rex, an average suburban housewife in The Goat, the neurotic southern belle Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie, and now this older, sadder, more realistic character whose independence is slowly and inexorably slipping away from her.

Del is the kind of person we see so often in documentaries and television current affairs shows, the faithful if not always happy wife who has stood by her husband through thick and thin, who realises that ultimately loyalty is in itself a kind of love, but that when her partner is rendered helpless by age or illness, then even her unexciting lifestyle is threatened. It’s the tragedy of the ageing married couple, and Burns captures both the poignancy and the frustrations of the situation.

I think that this in itself is enough, and that the dramatic revelations and the obligatory Big Speech at the end of the play detract from its power to unnerve us. For the sake of those who like unexpected bits of dirty linen to come out of the clothes basket, I won’t give away the ending, but the last ten minutes of the text are extraneous to the real issue, which is strong enough to speak for itself. The play is not like a mystery where we need to have all the pieces fitting together to bring it to a satisfactory conclusion, for it’s not about moving towards an explanation, a resolution or an ending. The tragedy lies in the situation itself, which is beyond redemption and has its own dramatic integrity. But I suppose that without the last ten minutes we would be left with a one-hour monologue, not big enough for a main-house production, but more of a television event.

In spite of these niggles it’s a play worth seeing, as an opportunity to see portrayed in fine dramatic form an issue that gets very little theatrical attention. For the older members of the audience it provided a shudder of recognition of an inevitable fate and, for the younger ones, an opportunity to see that the old have their tragedies too, and that powerful relationships don’t have to be between the Romeo-and-Juliets of this world, or even the Anthony-and-Cleopatras. Ordinary old age and its problems can be just as traumatic, and just as appropriate as a theatrical issue.

Director: Jean-Marc Russ

Playing 30 August – 15 September 2007, Tue & Wed 6.30pm, Thu – Sat 8pm Matinees Wed 29 August, Tue 4 & 11 September 11am, Sat 15 September 2pm

Duration : 70 minutes, no interval

— Alison Cotes
(Performance seen: Wed 29th August 2007)