In her program notes, Director Nadia Tass references the careful balance that Playwright David Williamson creates between gravity and humour. With that in mind, SORTING OUT RACHEL at the Ensemble Theatre is a play somewhat of your own making. On one level, it is a funny, moving and modern take on familial matters. Yet big issues insert themselves into the viewing and those themes are there for the taking.
We meet Tess. Waiting at a café on the water. Somewhat empty, somewhat late. Just as she gets completely ticked off and is ready to leave, Bruce arrives. He is older, hearty and very ‘hail fellow well met’. But Tess has come here to say something and his surface joviality will not deter her.
She is his child, supported but not acknowledged. The daughter of Bruce’s long term, suddenly ended, liaison with her mother Amy, a Murri woman who ran his household. What she wants from the now widowed Bruce, and her hard-line stance on it, will impact not only on this millionaire’s life but that of his acknowledged daughter and her family. Especially his only granddaughter, Rachel, who is about the same age as Tess. There is some sorting out to do.
Chenoa Deemal plays Tess and gives us a young woman who is as determined as her father. However, Deemal takes Tess beyond the steel to evoke the warmer side she inherits from her mother. Loving, rational and with a deep, historic hurt Amy is there in much of what Deemal says and does as Tess. Especially in dealing with Bruce, played with authority by John Howard who successfully brings the ruthlessness of Bruce’s youth and the regrets of his aging.
As granddaughter Rachel, Jenna Owen also balances the parents within. With her father’s odd sense of humour and her mother’s hands on hip stance, she is ruthlessly teenager, suitably over dramatic and a door slammer par excellence! Some of the funniest lines in the play strike home to every parent watching. Her dad, Craig, is played by Glenn Hazeline and he is great fun to watch. Venal and venial in equal measure he neither speaks nor acts without an eye to the main chance.
Even in the private moments with his wife, Julie, played with minimal hysteria and with enormous grace by Natalie Saleeba. Saleeba travels the biggest arc of the piece and despite the actual conversion being a little hard forsee, when it does arrive it is greeted by cheers and applause. Julie is also gifted by Williamson with an intelligent rationality which accepts advice to try and sort out … well, Julie really!
Though the set design (Tobhiyah Stone Feller) does incorporate some video for time and place setting, it is essentially a grey household wall. But the intricacy of the choice to have the upper, major part of the wall decorative and expensive looking while there is plain grey below the white dado rail is a discrete delineation of the intricacy of the themes of SORTING OUT RACHEL. The play has much to say about disparity and separation, speaking discreetly and quietly from a distant room on privilege, legacy and belonging.
Gently, Tass has given the audience the space to relax into an enjoyment of the work. Funny bone and amygdala pinged in a satisfying way. Yet she has carefully balanced the gravity of Williamson’s text. And if the many, some quite slow, set and costume changes of the last part of the show are somewhat onerous, it is worth it to see how rational, empathetic people might yet put the world to right.