EVERY BEAUTIFUL THING. Written by Jon Keevy. Directed by Tara Notcutt, with Briony Horwitz and Jazzara Jaslyn. At Alexander Upstairs until Saturday. TRACEY SAUNDERS reviews
“ALL happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The opening line of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is an oft quoted confirmation of the unique quality of many family’s misery.
As much as misery is unique, so is happiness and both are inextricably woven into the relationship that is explored between these two sisters, Susan and Katelyn. The ties that bind the two are gossamer thin, yet strong as silk and despite the extraordinary strains that they bear, are unbreakable.
The production plays with the notion of family connections and it is clear that shared blood connections alone are neither sufficient nor necessary to establish or maintain fierce loyalty and love.
The play opens with two young girls in a makeshift bed sheet tent. Adults playing the roles of children can go horribly wrong and often does. In this case both Horwitz and Jaslyn are able to believably recreate the innocence and vulnerability of the two young sisters. Whether the scene is necessary or a stylistic indulgence though is up for debate.
Jaslyn is the epitome of pretty, a girl whose aesthetic is both her blessing and her curse. Seemingly oblivious to the charm bestowed by her beauty she has lived her life and then some. It is Horwitz as the older responsible sister that seems more self aware and yet her moral certainty seems to waver when confronted by her younger sibling’s questioning.
Katelyn bears the double gift of youngest child and fertility miracle. The joyous accident of her birth results in a personal burden for her older adopted sister, one that she carries to adulthood.
The tension between the two is navigated in a choreographic duet of hazy memories and contested remembering. A clear example of history being a matter of perspective, whether it is personal or political. One sister’s fear infused recollection merely a funny foible for the other. Susan wryly observes that there is little distinction between Katelyn’s declaration of her status as a poet or a narcotic aficionado and blaming becomes a vicious game that the two play with little restraint.
The set design is simple and Jaslyn’s static pose in the bed is indicative of her position in life. Her obstinate clinging to the right to be reckless to the end with no care for the consequences which earns the ire of her older sister. Keevy has woven the threads of jealousy, love, fear and belonging in to a strong weft of intimacy which evokes a guilty sense of the voyeuristic as you watch their interaction.
There are words aplenty and yet it is when Susan gazes in silence at images of the past and recollects her childhood outsider status that her vocabulary appears vast. Notcutt is not afraid to allow the eloquence of the silence to hold it’s own on the stage and the pace of the narrative is allowed to unfold gently without denying the fierce emotion at the heart of the story.
Keevy’s writing is impeccable and as in A girl called Owl each monologue is a tiny gem. There are times where the writing gets in the way of itself and the characters get caught up in the sheer beauty of the narrative. Not necessarily a bad thing but at times the emotional impact is diluted. What Keevy excels at is sketching the characters you don’t see. Susan’s husband, Mandisi, her daughter, Katelyn’s wealthy lover, their parents – all play bit parts without setting foot on stage.
Their foibles and motives are imparted with such clarity that their presence is acutely felt. The carefully scripted dialogue see-saws between compassion and contempt and is delivered with a keen understanding and naked authenticity by both sisters.
While the sibling relationship seems paramount it is the exploration of the nature of motherhood which adds an interesting dimension to the piece. While motherhood may be a status conferred with a biological event, mothering is more perilous, less certain. A role that Susan herself seems to approach with some ambiguity both as subject and object.
The ambivalence of her happiness which seems to be in complete contrast to her accident prone sister is laid bare as the play progresses and the denouement of the piece will leave you questioning the nature of nurturing itself .
Virginia Woolf observed that “Women and fiction remain, so far as I am concerned, unsolved problems.” Every beautiful thing doesn’t resolve the problem, but lays the complexities bare. While the women may be fictitious, the emotions are real, very very real.
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