Hunters Hill Theatre’s A LETTER FROM THE GENERAL is everything you want in a night out at a community theatre. An entertaining show with committed performances, chatty and engaged audience members, friendly and professional front of house staff and as a bonus … really, really good coffee.
The play opens on a bamboo lined set and with the insect cacophony of the audio track we are obviously somewhere tropical. An infectiously enthusiastic young nun bustles in searching for an implement to fix the wire of the chicken coop. In her noisy and excitable poking around, she is obviously disturbing an older, more sombre Sister who is sitting at the desk focused on cataloguing some text books.
It is the 1950s in a nameless country as Chinese communism assumes political power and begins to oust foreigners. The nunnery is part of what used to be a mission school and child refuge. Now there are only five Sisters left and their priest has been arrested and tortured. The local British representative is closing up his consulate and heading out of the country too.
There may, however, be some salvation for the Sisters. One of the new military leaders was given a Christian education and the oldest of the Mission’s Religious is his Godmother. Sister Magdalen has written to him for help and the community has pinned its hopes on a positive reply … A Letter from the General.
Jennifer Willison is the director of the production and one of the strongest elements of A LETTER FROM THE GENERAL is the way in which she has nurtured her cast into clear and powerful relationships. The individual characters are great but we know them better when they interact. It’s lovely ensemble work right from that first light-hearted interaction between careworn Sister Henry, Linda Young, and chicken wrangler Sister Lucy, Courtney Gibson. Young is focused and slightly impatient here which nicely presages the soul searching and reflection she will later undergo. Gibson does a great job of avoiding flightiness or silliness in Sister Lucy, while maintaining an endearing lightness of attitude.
Robyn Williams is the Reverend Mother of this little community and she brings gravitas and strength of purpose to the role. We see her big picture struggle to make difficult ethical decisions balanced with the individual relationships with the people in her charge. Williams speaks of ‘tightrope walking’ in her program bio and that is an apt analysis of the character.
Her responsibilities include Sister Bridget. Janet Shay describes her character as incorrigible … another apt comment and Shay gives Bridget an inner steel. Sister Magdalen (Carole Grace) rounds out the cast of nuns and Grace gives us very empathetic and strong willed elder, dedicated to service.
In times of political upheaval, strangers are thrown together. Into this small group comes Arthur Stilton, the British Consul and Christopher Clark is every inch the Guardian of Empire and career bureaucrat. His relationship with his difficult, jaded and cynical wife Ruth is very well expressed. As Ruth, Paula Searle has an unbridled, unequivocal disdain for the life she has been forced to lead as Stilton’s wife and a similar dislike of this country and its people. Searle is terrific in this role as much for her character’s arc and hidden sorrow as for the surface brittleness of Ruth.
There are two other cast members. Michael Richmond is Father Schiller and he is warm and stoically faithful to his beliefs in a nicely envisioned contrast with Captain Lee. Dan Ferris puts a very nasty character on the stage in his brutal and malicious Captain. He uses his height to good effect to menace the women.
Willison is not afraid to use silence on stage and does so several times to effect. Her nuns are self-contained, often with hands below their scapular, and the male struggle for dominance climaxing in a physical confrontation between Lee and Stilton is well directed. There are predictabilities in the text which she drives right through creating tension and serving the thriller aspects of the story.
The Director has fine support in a good soundscape (Casey Moon-Watton) which sets the scene very well and a lighting design which makes the best use of a limited rig with a well-chosen blue and a splash of colour upstage mixed with a subtle breakup effect. (Lighting: Wayne Chee). Willison has also designed the set which is evocative without being cluttered.
Hunters Hill Theatre’s A LETTER FROM THE GENERAL is a really pleasant night out and it runs until 17 September.