I knew beforehand that the play involved three families living in three houses in suburbia. I was surprised on entering the theatre to see on the sage one large house rather than the three small ones that I had expected. As well there were two large flat screens on either side of the stage. I briefly thought that the action in the other two houses would be shown on the screens.
As the play developed in the first few minutes the house became crammed with people, but it soon became clear that it did not contain a very large family, instead I realised that there was some theatrical artifice here. The three separate households physically occupy one generic house on stage, representing the three houses on quarter acre blocks. The photograph below shows Nola (Pamela Rabe) at the side window. The kitchen can be seen at the left. For most of the play the house was rotated by 90 degrees to show the kitchen, with its two picture windows and back door. The house is reminiscent of the suburban house paintings of Howard Arkley .
The play which was written by Patrick White, premiered in 1962, which was the same year that Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? opened on Broadway. Albee’s play was a feature of the 2007 MTC season, and my review can be found at this post. The play was performed by members of the STC Actors Company, a full time actors ensemble.
The play has been summarised as follows:
Here is ordinary suburban Australia: three houses and three backyards, well-lawned and duly Hill’s-hoisted, full of the happy hubbub of family life. In this no-worries tract of battlers and good sorts, the Boyles, the Pogsons and the Knotts live out the Great Australian Dream of frugal comfort and conspicuous normality.
But look closer. These may be everyday Australians, but every day – every sunny, yellow, oven-baked day – is dunked in the pinky, bitter-sweet cuppa of human life. Seek love or lust or hatred; seek joy or disappointment, or the beauty that redeems, or the repulsiveness that clutches; seek head-back mirth or head-bowed sorrow; and you will surely find it contained within the three grassy spaces between the fence palings and the brick veneer during this long hot season at Sarsaparilla.
The Pogsons - the respectable family
Clive - a business excutive who sells Holden cars. He is described in the stage directions as: "Round fifty. A rather thick-set business bull – a minor one, but he will probably never know that." Played by John Gaden.
Girlie - Clive's wife. She is the local busybody. According to White: "a small spruce woman in her forties. Not a hair out of place, and never will be. Everything must be nice, even if you pay the price. (She) wears all the marks of anxiety and a respectable social level." Girlie often mentions "Rosedale" which represents the lost paradise of her childhood. In Act Two she again says, “When we were girls at Rosedale, we were taught just how far a person may go, in conversation, or …life. We were educated to look at things ethically.” There is a feeling in the play that she has moved down the social class ladder to marry Clive. Ern, the night soil neighbour calls Girlie “that prissy old cow from next door,” to which Nola, his wife, adds, “She don’t need to come in. She was born with imagination. And a thousand ears.” Played by Peter Carroll, another male successfully playing a female character. For another example see my post on Priscilla.
Judy - the elder daughter of Clive and Girlie. She is studying the violin, has artistic notions about herself, according to White "she plays with a touch that is not exactly brilliant – yet studies at the Con – about 18. A tea-rose. Very pretty and sweet. Rather withdrawn and tentative." She is pursued by Ron and Roy. Played by Hayley McElhinney.
Pippy - Clive and Girlie’s inquisitive younger daughter, who is nearing puberty. She is very aware of the bitch in season that is being pursued by the local dogs the sounds of which can be heard throughout the play. Nola informs Pippy of the meaning of the dogs pursuing the bitch. Pippy loses interest in them as she matures during the second act. Played by Amber McMahon
Deedree Ingpen - described by the playwright as "Slightly younger than her friend Pippy, more innocent, easily put upon; Deedree is the eternal stooge." Pippy describes her as "bakcward" and "stupid". Played by Alan John another successful crossdressing role, John is an accomplished musician as well as actor. He wrote the music for the production and performed it on the Hammond organ.
The Boyles - the childless couple
Ernie - a night cart man, described as "he is in his forties, but very active. An obviously goodnatured, innocent and generous male, who respects and depends on ‘the
women folk..’ " Played by Brandon Burke.
Nola - Ernie’s wife, an earthy sexpot; described as "in her forties, she is often dressed in a chenille dressing-gown. Generous of figure. Tawny of head. A lioness.
Stretching and yawning… sounds hoarse, but comforting. Nola says “a
sanitary lady’s life is not all roses.” She tells Ern in Act Two, “The
terrible thing about a conscience is it don’t stay with you all the time. It walks
out, and lets you down. When you’re weak…. I’m weak. There are times
when the flesh lies too easy on your bones. When even the air tickles your
skin, in the places where it can get at you most.” As David Marrpoints out in Patrick White – A Life , “Girlie is initiating…. Pippy in the respectable lies that rule her existence. But the Pogson’s effoers…are undone by Nola Boyle, motherly, candid and sexually charged." Played by Pamela Rabe.
Rowley Masson (Digger) - A mate who fought with Ern in the Western Desert in WWII and now a truck driver who imposes on his mate to allow him to stay with him for a while. Described as : "a handsome man in his forties. A bit seedy, battered. Good features of the hatchet variety. He tells Nola: “My trouble is: I never had a woman I liked. But tried often." Ern is betrayed by his wife and his war buddy when they have an affair. The play makes clear that this is not the only instance when Nola has strayed. Played by Colin Moody.
The Knotts - the young happy family
Harry - a salesman in menswear he is described as: "a young man, probably younger than he looks, butresponsibilities have been thrust upon him early. He is wearing his business pants, well-pressed, and beautifully laundered white shirt. Arm-bands. There
is nothing distinctive about him." Played by Martin Blum.
Mavis - Harry's wife, very pregnant, described as: "a bit miserable and fretful, though normally she would be a placid, acceptant young woman. Neither pretty nor plain. The average, decent suburban wife." Nola comments of Mavis: "One of the lucky ones. She’ll settle down to ... (motherhood) like shelling peas." Played by Emily Dawe.
Roy Child - Mavis' brother, he is a teacher, on holidays during the play, and is a poet and discontented soul, who acts as the Chorus in the play; he lives with the Knotts and is Judy Pogson’s boyfriend for a time. He is restless and unhappy with his life deciding at the end to leave teaching to write. Played by Eden Falk.
Ron Studdards - A post-office clerk he is described as: "a decent fellow. About 21. ….. He is a mixture of the diffident and the determined. He slowly but steadily pursues Judy. Played by Dan Spielman
Julia Sheen - not a member of one of the families something of an "outsider" she is describes as: "glorious. Perfectly dressed. Perfectly slim. Long legs, neck. A pencil parasol. Any position she takes will be the artificial pose of the model.": Roy who has a dalliance with her describes her as: “all show. But what a show!” She has an affair with Mr Erbage that ends in disaster. Played by Helen Thompson.
Mr Erbage - easily the most unattractive character described as: "middle fifties ... self-conscious and self-satisfied." A local businessman (with the feel of a corrupt realestate agent). Played by Alan John. I didn't realise that Deirdre and Erbage were played by the same actor until writing Erbage's description.
The Season at Sarsaparilla is an Australian classic brilliantly performed in this production.
The Slideshow below shows some of the characters and the setting.