Old-fashioned storytelling may be staging a comeback. Though spin-meisters have been recently proclaiming “the death of irony,” it’s postmodernism that’s likely to have fallen with the twin towers. Irony, after all, has been around at least as long as Oedipus Rex (and is probably enjoying a good smirk at its premature obituary). But what greater symbol has the theory-laden techno era had than the overreaching skyscraper? Steely grandiosity and cold cleverness no longer seem tenable in the wake of the terrorist attacks. What’s needed is a return to the human core, a reaffirmation of the value behind all those individual narratives brought to an abrupt and senseless end on a postcard September day.
Cloudstreet, the five-hour Australian epic presented last week at BAM, pays homage to the eternal dignity of character. Granted, the saga may seem daunting on paper. Two decades, 40 roles, 15 actors, and more than 100 scenes are an awful lot to ask anyone to sit through, never mind a New York audience riddled with grief. Yet the widely acclaimed touring production has a populist appeal that’s rooted in our desire to vicariously experience the slings and arrows of fate through a colorful assortment of salty humanity. Who would have expected an Aussie miniseries to be so salutary at a time like this?
Adapted by Mick Enright and Justin Monjo from the novel by Tim Winton, the neo-Dickensian drama charts the mid-century lives of two working-class families whose misfortunes bring them to the same rundown mansion in unglamorous Perth. The religious Lambs leave their small town after the only miracle that has ever happened to them blows up in their face. Favorite son Fish revives after being drowned during a prawn-gathering expedition, but is later found to have suffered irreversible brain damage as a result. In a bit of outrageous luck, the tawdrier Pickles family inherits a haunted old house at Number 1 Cloud Street immediately following father Sam’s mutilating hand injury. Unable to find work, he decides to take the Lambs and their six kids in as boarders. Side by side the two families live, the hardworking Lambs channeling their somber disappointment into a successful food shop, the Pickles gambling, drinking, and carousing their way into further arrears.
Cloudstreet celebrates the spirit of resiliency, and the way hardship (when not too degrading) can expand our reluctant capacity for camaraderie. The Lambs’ and Pickles’ intersecting stories are meant to serve as a parable of Australia struggling to find its identity in the postwar era, though the play works best when it avoids a sometimes schmaltzy “we’re all one big island-continent family” tune. Perfunctory attempts to broaden the national scope by incorporating the perspective of a mysterious aborigine (identified in the program merely as “Black man”) seem like embarrassing nods at political correctness. Needless to say the narrative’s depth stems not from its politics or history but from its characters and the idiosyncratic conflicts that arise between them. Though the Lambs and Pickles couldn’t be less alike, the two households are similarly caught in the gap between their erstwhile dreams and their workaday realities. No wonder they’re taken so quickly into our sympathies.
The sprawling story, however, wouldn’t hold our attention if it weren’t told in such a vibrant and economical style. Directed by Neil Armfield, the production employs a pictorial shorthand that’s as agile as it is boldly invigorating. The set consists of nothing more than a slatted wooden floor, sand, a long dinner table, a few beds on wheels, and a white muslin curtain behind which (thematically redundant) ghosts occasionally appear. The actors, who move effortlessly between direct address and dramatization, cart the few necessary objects with the jazzy briskness of musician Matthew Hoy’s cello and piano underscoring. The simple sophistication of the staging keeps the homespun tale from dragging.
Not everyone will be as forgiving of the play’s sentimental lapses (the two families’ final-act rendition of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” should have been scrapped) or the occasional heavy-handed symbolism (retarded Fish in his soiled underpants as the embodiment of the helpless messiness of daily life). But overriding these faults is the commitment of the wonderful cast. True, it’s an ensemble of larger-than-life quirks and foibles, but humanity pours through the comic exaggeration.
Kris McQuade as the trampy, husky-voiced Mrs. Pickles radiates a weary soulfulness with every puff of her dangling cigarette. A Brenda Vaccaro on the skids, she seeks escape from her unsexy domestic scene in a nearby pub, where her tattered lustiness still has power to provoke. Roy Billing portrays her hapless husband with a blinkered optimism that leaves subtle traces of an ennobling despair. Equally effective are John Gaden and Gillian Jones as the more sober Mr. and Mrs. Lamb, a pious couple intent on lending a helping hand even as the guilt over their damaged son Fish (played with oafish glee by Daniel Wyllie) claws at them. Claire Jones as the bookish, possibly anorexic Rose Pickles and Christopher Pitman as the restless, bighearted Quick Lamb have a genuine vulnerability that makes it impossible not to root for their gradual romance.
The generous spirit of the production was crystallized during the long curtain call, where the sadness in the eyes of the cast matched the mistiness of the audience: life and art recognizing in a mutual bow what’s irreplaceable, too cheaply valued, and so easily lost.