"What is refused in the Symbolic Order returns in the Real," wrote Jacques Lacan, referring to a patient's hallucinations decribed in one of Freud's famous case studies. For Rhonda, whose Symbolic Order has been stolidly refusing to accept quite a lot these past five years, the return is a particularly dramatic one in this entertaining but ultimately anti-climactic psycho-drama by Bridgette Burton.
Rhonda is a young-to-middle-aged lecturer in chemical engineering with a son who died the day after his fifth birthday, a daughter who is about to turn five and a raging case of sex addiction. Recently she has fallen into an everyday routine of meeting one of her "sexy" students for not-so-sexy sex in her office. She insists that she still loves her husband, Lief, and indeed her addiction also extends to exhausting Lief in the conjugal bed. Clearly she has problem, and it's more than just a urinary tract infection.
Although she's obviously deluding herself when she claims that her nymphomania is unconnected to the trauma of her son's death, it's not clear just how deep the delusion runs.
Burton's script is not so much concerned with the ill effects of not dealing with psychological shock as with the unlimited human potential for self-deception. While her son's death is central to the unfolding of the plot, it's more the audacity of Rhonda's defensive response that intrigues us, whether it's the sex, or something more elaborate. And that's about as much as I can say about that.
It's always healthy, I think, to be suspicious of plays where the reviewer feels constrained not to spoil the plot. Rhonda's sudden anagnorisis is what we'd now call an M. Night Shyamalan twist – and it's pulled off very neatly – but, just like a Shyamalan film, there is something naggingly insubstantial about this play.
If the psychological rollercoaster is perhaps not as engaging as the clever twist deserves, it is partly because of the relatively bland context in which it sits. The scenario would have benefited from a more lively stylisation, either with more wit and a punchier comic focus, or something more uncanny and sinister. Instead Burton and director Wayne Pearn have opted for a kind of overwrought suburban tragicomedy where we are neither touched deeply enough by the grief nor laugh wildly enough at the absurdity to feel at all transformed by the experience.
Louise Crawford is almost too efficient in suggesting Rhonda's inaccessibility. Though the play spends most of its time in Rhonda's head, we get little sense of who she is or was or will be.
James Caldwell and Kelly Nash as the student and therapist respectively likewise struggle to define themselves. Kelly Nash is particularly anonymous, a vague interrogative smudge whose blurriness undercuts the power of the plot reversal she figures. I can't help but feel that Burton should have spent more time developing this mysterious therapist and less in trying to replicate the toddler-under-the-tire pathos of David Lindsay-Abaire's Rabbit Hole.
Ben Grant is a beacon of warmth among the shadows as Rhonda's good-natured husband, Leif. While Rhonda is always trying to escape, to relieve herself of the burden of being there, Lief has a burbling irrepressible humanity about him as the consistent advocate for living in the present.
It is perhaps futile to wish that a play that has already spent so long in development should have been more developed. I only think that given the wicked potential of the story's manipulations this could have been a production with a sharper impact, in design, in direction, in the performances, and, ultimately, in the writing.
Produced and presented by Hoy Polloy Theatre Productions and Baggage Productions.