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March 6, 2013 5:17 pm
Anyone familiar with the work of American playwright Bruce Norris won’t be fooled by the modest living room set for this fine revival of his 2002 play Purple Heart. In Norris’s caustic comedies Clybourne Park and The Pain and the Itch, carpets and curtains bear witness to breathtaking revelations of hypocrisy.
Here the domestic interior is an unremarkable dwelling in the American Midwest in 1972 (congratulations to set designer Simon Kenny for pitch-perfect light-fittings and to actor Oliver Coopersmith, who masters the ancient art of lining up a stylus to play an LP). But the subject being swept under the neatly fringed carpet is the Vietnam war. This is the home of war widow Carla, her teenage son Thor and her mother-in-law Grace, and the damage done by that distant conflict is soon poking through the trivial conversation about milk and casserole.
Carla finds solace in vodka, and much of the initial painful comedy arises from the cat-and-mouse game between her and Grace, as the latter mixes idle gossip with attempts to unearth Carla’s hidden liquor. Thor meanwhile combines normal teenage backchat with a disturbing penchant for home-made explosives and, when the family is unexpectedly visited by a wounded and mysterious ex-serviceman, reveals a ghoulish fascination with ugly truths about the military campaign.
Norris wrote the play during the lead-up to the US invasion of Iraq and it bubbles with anger at a society unable to learn from previous catastrophe. The three generations on view display different types of dysfunctional response to the trauma, while the visiting Corporal Purdy eventually makes a shocking revelation that seems symbolic.
Purdy’s admission is unconvincing, the denouement feels heavy-handed and the play stalls occasionally: it is clearly an early work. But where it excels, and foreshadows the work to come, is in its excruciatingly funny dialogue, and unflinching look at mixed motives. Unnervingly, Norris pinpoints moments when kindness becomes control and love becomes cruel. This is deftly brought out by an excellent cast in Christopher Haydon’s painfully claustrophobic and moving production. Amelia Lowdell’s Carla radiates pain, fury and despair, as she tries to blot out her grief and evade the cloying control of Grace (a superb performance from Linda Broughton) who doesn’t have the tools to deal with such raw anguish. Trevor White is creepily inscrutable as Purdy, and Oliver Coopersmith quietly disturbing as Thor, the boy who will carry forward the legacy of this mess.
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