I first came across Bruce Norris through the Royal Court production of The Pain and the Itch in 2007. As good as that play was, the real revelation came with Clybourne Park three years later, a sharp dissection of race, happiness, and the middle classes. His new play The Low Road premieres at the Royal Court Upstairs in a couple of weeks. He seems to feel totally at ease in that theatre, as a result I always felt he was one of our own: as much a british playwright as he is american.
So it was fascinating to see Purple Heart, one of his earlier plays, in this interesting if not perfect revival directed by Christopher Haydon at the Gate theatre. The play, written in 2002 but set in 1972, explores the dark heart of american small town communities, where respectability, patriotism and religion can create an airless prison of secrets and crimes.
The play deftly weaves moments and characters to create the illusion of every day life while revealing the magic picture of the dark human soul. I missed the one-two punchiness of Norris’s later plays, and some interactions were bogged down by big speeches, but the text still has an explosive dangerous power.
The production itself gets enough things right to let the play breath but it’s far from an unmitigated success. On the plus side, Amelia Lowedell gives a detailed powerful performance of a character ready to jump out of her skin. Trevor White, so good at the Long Day’s Journey into Night at the Apollo last summer, manages to suggest layers and contradictions under a very gentle facade. The set, all yellow and faded brown, invokes the realism of a suburban house in the 70s and the burnt down landscape of the characters’ soul.
On the minus side, Linda Broughton is too broad for the minutiae realism of the production and Oliver Coopersmith struggles to convince as a twelve year old (admittedly a difficult task). Last but not least, some of the american accents were patchy at best. I hardly ever complain about accents, mostly because I have no skill discerning them, but it took me a long while to stop being distracted and not all actors seemed comfortable with them.
Not as satisfying as it could have been, but a spirited production and an exploration in the work of a playwright I love. Next stop, The Low Road at the Royal Court Upstairs.