Gwen is ninety. Recently moved out of the now for sale family home, she is newly ensconced in a remote, newly built condo, complete with fan forced ovens and air conditioners, corresponding remote controls and maddening instruction manuals.
Set in real time, members of her family seemingly happen along on the now frail matriarch, carrying out a disingenuous performance of having her best interests at heart. Daniel, her grandson, is protective, unanchored by the loss of his mother to ambiguous circumstances. He has been brought up by his family, in particular his fussy Aunt Peg (referred to as ‘mum’) in a functional, yet ultimately inadequate way.
Peg herself seems to have fallen victim to ‘only responsible daughter’ syndrome, frustrated by the expectations of the family for her to take on the figure of ‘carer’, whilst simultaneously trying to embrace her independence before it is too late. Peg’s brother Laurie is the failed male figure of the family, an ineffective and selfish businessman, but as the sole remaining son he has been given the role of the patriarch, a position where he is completely out of his depth.
Observing the goings on is Father Ezekiel, a newly ordained Nigerian priest, well meaning but alienated from the interactions of this family, his goal throughout the play to sign off on blessing the new house and get to the local library so he can Skype his family. You hate to use the word ‘innocent’ when describing his character, but in many ways that is how he is written, or rather is used to further push the idea that this family, with their flapping dance around Gwen, is completely oblivious to the ways in which their attempts to care for each other actually inflict great pain.
Tommy Murphy has touched on these themes of family before in his 2005 play Strangers In Between. In that play the gay main character Shane has escaped his rural NSW home town after a beating from his brother, a trope that is both activated and subverted within the text. That lack of clear judgement is emphasised by an almost complete absence of stage directions save entrances and exits. In reading the text it means that you find yourself reading it too fast, too quickly jumping between the characters, but it is an exciting prospect for the interpretation of this play by anyone producing it. This ambiguity in the characters’ intentions can be coloured and emphasised as it fits that particular production, and in a reading of the text on an academic level, it can achieve much of the same.
In Gwen in Purgatory, as the foibles of the seemingly caring characters emerge in the text, you find yourself searching for someone to blame, a bad guy. You search for an overarching comment on the treatment of the elderly in society. Tommy Murphy, and by extension the characters refuse that, the play emphasising the inherent brutality of being human, of the need to serve yourself before others. Laurie and Peg are no more guilty than Gwen of damaging the ones closest to them through ‘trying to do the best for them’. It is an ugly truth, but one that draws humour, and a sense of humanness into the text.
Currency Press | 978-0-86819-894-1 | PB
$21.95 inc GST