A mother has died and in her North Queensland house, a ramshackle thing renovated to feel livable, only Mae (Shari Sebbens) remains. She’s disconnected and unhappy and – it seems – wooden. It’s the day of the funeral and her half-sisters are there with her at this empty home base: Cressy (Leah Purcell), a successful opera singer living in London, and Nona (Miranda Tapsell) a young and aggressively free spirit. They are uncomfortable with each other and around each other; they barely know each other.
Mae has done up the house with money from Cressy, but the two can’t quite look each other in the eye. As they reconnect, with wine and their mother’s ashes and stitched-together memories that never stop feeling broken, something starts to crack wide open and secrets are revealed.
Gorgeously lit by Damien Cooper, sun is slatted through the windows and marks the passing of time and change of warmth in the house by degrees; the puddled-wet expanse in front of the stage doubles for real bodies of water and for that sense of tropical North Queensland, teeming with heat and wetness. Rain (sound by Brendan O’Brien), scatters across the background. There is an undeniable connection to the earth in Leah Purcell’s (who also directs) production, a sense of grounding in water and house and home. It’s so fitting, because this is a story about a family that has been stuck in one space, tangled roots in the earth.
But it’s only in this short window of time, when the tides have receded and the stars have aligned – sister stars, Cressy and Mae used to call their own particular constellation – that the sisters can try to make sense of their lives without the spectre of their mother and break free.
Their secrets are not entirely outrageous or unbelievable, but they are written and portrayed with such yearning humanity that it’s impossible not to be caught up in their revelations and in their consequences. There’s a quiet demand from each sister, a straightening of the spine that says ‘this is my truth: it’s not a good one, but it’s mine.’ That experience of owning themselves and their past, of putting names to terrible fears, is harrowing and empowering and cathartic.
Louis Nowra’s play debuted at Belvoir in 1993 and as a revival it’s slightly leaner, playing through without its usual interval. Purcell uses this to her advantage, building quietly and inevitably like the rising of the moon to its explosive truths, secrets desperately guarded by each sister. Purcell’s pacing isn’t perfect; the second act flows gorgeously and the actors dive through and bury into their parts, but the first is too stilted, which does reflect the girls and their moods, but shapes the play into a story that feels uneven and unsure.
Miranda Tapsell as the hot-blooded, attention-span-deprived, strangely good-hearted baby of the family, Nona, is an instant comic relief and a pure bundle of energetic delight. She’s derided by her sisters because she seems the most like their problematic mother, and also, because she was the child their mother kept with her; she’s not spoiled but they think she’s been indulged. Mae thinks nothing of speaking to her savagely, calling her a slut and dismissing her feelings with the wave of her hand, and it takes us several long stretches to realise that this is because Mae has coated all her vulnerabilities in a prickly defensiveness.
Truly it’s Mae who feels more deeply than her sisters, who both suffer and love and try and fail just as she does, but it’s Mae who feels everything more deeply than she can bear. When we begin to learn more about her, the strangely wooden woman who cared for their mother in her illness until her death, this woman who can’t bear to live in the world, it’s impossible not to feel a wave of empathy for her. Everyone wants to be loved, even Mae, and Mae doesn’t feel any love in the world. Sebbens plays the long game with Mae; her release is incremental, her choices so subtle it’s entirely possible to miss them all Mae has her moment late in the play. It’s a brilliant and brave choice, probably the most complex work on stage.
Purcell’s Cressy benefits from Purcell’s height and stature, which Purcell has conferred upon a gracious affectation or two; she’s a little more open than Mae, though only selectively, and her energy is so different from Nona’s – placid against Nona’s mania – but her affection for the littlest sister is obvious and touching. It humanises her, the one who got far, far away from her family, in the slightest quirk of a smile, and the softening around her mouth.
To have Purcell, Sebbens and Tapsell in one play is an embarrassment of riches, and it’s so easy and wonderful to watch them together, the chemistry they’ve established; they are fine actors, and while Radiance feels uneven, and perilously colourless in the beginning, when it finally comes into its own, it does what director Purcell’s character does best: it sings, like it doesn’t even know it’s really making that beautiful sound.