Characters on the fringe of society have often made for riveting works of art, from The Ballad of the Sad Cafe to Our Country’s Good to Separate Tables. The Production Company’s current staging of Patricia Cornelius’ 2003 play Love, directed by Mark Armstrong and playing at Center Stage, focuses on a trio of such characters and, as her simple title suggests, asks just what these three would do for love. Do not be mistaken, however. While Cornelius’ title is simple, her play is anything but. Winner of the Wal Cherry Award, a prestigious Australian honor bestowed upon new plays, Love is a challenging work, for both the audience and the trio of resourceful actors bringing the show to life. The play wonders who deserves love. Does everyone? What is love? Can it really exist in different forms with different people at the same time?
Love portrays people who use that term when what they really mean is want or need. Full of vim and vitriol, Cornelius connects the dots between three very intense characters, all constantly in need. Annie (Erin Maya Darke) is a prostitute and drug addict who falls for Tanya (Bronwen Coleman). Their passionate affair comes to an end when Tanya is imprisoned (one of the play’s few details that might benefit from further embellishment).
Enter Lorenzo (Ken Matthews), a fellow junkie and manipulator. Annie easily falls for him, or at least she thinks so – perhaps she has just fallen into his web, thinking she is starkly in need of someone to take care of her as Tanya had. However, Lorenzo doesn’t quite fill the void left by Tanya. When her incarceration is over, Tanya returns to Annie and Lorenzo remains in the picture. They form the oddest threesome, at times repellent and at other times oddly beguiling in their symbiosis. All of them, it seems, serve a need for one another.
Cornelius’ bizarre love triangle is an astute portrayal of desperate living, mainly because she does a superlative job shading in the details of these characters’ sordid lives. But it is the three actors who take her sturdy foundation and run with it. Witness Matthews’ work, in which humor, libido and drug-infused mania collide in a perfect storm. Watch Coleman balance her tough persona with touches of maternal instinct, with attention to both the nurturing instinct and sense of ownership that goes along with that.
And pay close attention to Darke’s complicated character development. As Love progresses, Annie’s ping-ponging begins to take a devastating toll on the character. Darke clues the audience in with subtle cues, embracing realism and subtlety over more obvious tricks. It is to the entire cast’s credit, though, that all three elicit equal amounts of empathy. Annie is not the protagonist of the show; rather, all three characters share that honor.
Cornelius is a co-founder of the Melbourne Workers Theatre, which seeks to elucidate the flaws in mainstream perception of Australian culture and identity. She has succeeded with a play that is both stark and soulful. Every moment is layered with texture. Like Armstrong’s last Production Company work, The Most Damaging Wound, Love is a deeply rich project. One can look into the face of any of the show’s characters and read into them a different motivation for just how and why events have escalated. Sarah Bader’s dead-on sound cues and Dan Henry’s expert lighting further strengthen the mood of the play.
A variety of reasons drive Cornelius’ characters to make poor decisions, but in Armstrong’s production, nary a one can be found.