Out of the darkness, cicadas sing in scattered groups. The small audience at La Mama are privy to the living room of an old widow and a framed photograph of her late-husband on the bookshelf. A Frederick McCubbin painting hangs on the wall of the family home, all combining to make the space feel sad and nostalgic.
The cicadas in the Magnolia Tree reflect the mother, whose advanced Alzheimer’s has led her three adult children – Jack, Deb and Vicky, to have to decide what to ‘do’ with her.
Playwright Michael Griffith has written a striking character-driven play filled with family secrets and fractured relationships, presenting them with an impossible bind.
What would you do?Place a parent in a nursing home or help them end their suffering? Would you have the strength to be an accomplice in ending a life?
On a deeper level, it begs the question: should euthanasia should be legalised in Australia?
Although blooming whilst connected, when a magnolia falls from the tree, it dies. Like the magnolia, the mother thrived prior to her illness. Yet with the onset of Alzheimer’s, the brain is disconnected from the beating heart.
Is this really a life? Sever it from the source, and it dies. This is the stance Jack, played by Ezra Bix, holds as he attempts to persuade his two sisters to let her go.
Vastly different to her real estate agent brother is Deb, a middle-aged mother who has never owned a house, played by Rohana Hayes. They clash on the character spectrum, with Jack’s responsible and stoic nature contrasting with the wide-eyed, naive Deb, who is typified by her question, “people have to pay to live in a nursing home?”.
Vicky, played by Helen Hopkins, is her mother’s sole carer. Her unkempt appearance illustrates a woman, who as Jack says, “wants to be important”, hiding in the house providing around-the-clock care for their mother.
The Magnolia Tree exudes 70 minutes of tension, with years of family secrets finally coming to the surface. The three siblings are forced to confront their closeted thoughts and past actions with nothing left unsaid.
At the completion of Act 2, the fourth wall is broken and the audience is asked to vote on the ending. In this thrilling moment I was hesitant, slowly raising my hand, yet most of the audience were adamant about their decision. They raised their hands, voting to let the mother die peacefully rather than wait for her inevitable decline.
Griffith has written a raw and grim account that confronts three characters at a monumental stage in their lives. The play is universal. It will challenge you. There is nothing more humiliating than to lose your ability to think, walk, speak, excrete. Griffith creates these vehement and headstrong characters, which the actors and director, Sara Grenfell, bring to life.
This play is a must-see for anyone who thrives on watching dilemmas and tensions unfold. It is an important demonstration of human resilience and repairing deep fractures after years of suppression.