How do we evolve to survive? Do we pursue individual interests and safety, or do we look out for the people walking beside us? Wicked Sisters, the final work of retired playwright Alma De Groen, is deeply interested in these questions.
De Groen – a New Zealand-born writer who found her writing voice in 1960s Australia – favours a sociopolitical lens with a feminist slant. In Wicked Sisters, revived by Griffin Theatre, she has a mission to bring older women to the stage. She is invested in their complications, flaws and ideals. She also likes to leave their quandaries unsolved.
In a dead scientist’s study, his experiments continue to evolve. Monitors dotted with “critters” – artificial life forms – light up and ring the room. The recently deceased Alec Hobbes was a social Darwinist who never so much as made his wife, Meridee (Vanessa Downing), a cup of coffee, let alone showed her affection; he lived in a rational and theoretical world, chasing perfection with his critters, taking out weaker species with ruthlessly staged “extinction events”.
Now that Meridee is alone in their Blue Mountains home, her social set is buzzing with concern – or at least the performance of concern. When she invites three old friends to stay for the weekend, they can’t resist the invitation. They sense weakness. They also can’t imagine that Meridee has a hidden agenda.
Wicked Sisters was first performed in 2002 and is itself affected by evolution. In 2020, Meridee, flashy real estate agent Lydia (Deborah Galanos), refined PR exec Judith (Hannah Waterman) and holdout feminist activist Hester (Di Adams) represent something more incisive than representation for older women. Now these characters seem more like a close study of the generational failures of white feminism.
Alec’s social Darwinism has been used to endorse market capitalism, racism, eugenics and fascism. Later in the play, the women compare themselves to his critters. It’s perhaps more apt than De Groen knew. After all, these women consider it a moral failing not to own property, they hoard and prioritise capital, and they have a history of betraying their sisters in order to maintain their social positions.
In the course of the play, we learn about these betrayals: adulteries, cover-ups, intellectual property theft, acquiescence to misogyny, backs turned on women in need. These are extinction events too.
Disappointingly, this production holds back. Directed by Nadia Tass in a forthright style that lets the easier comic elements rule the stage, it’s a roar caged in banter. The play gestures towards several ideas – and several tough feelings – but prefers to trade quips and philosophical speculations rather than excavating these women’s experiences, their contradictions of privilege and powerlessness, of selfishness and vulnerability.
There’s an edge of presentation here – the play is sometimes happening at us, not with us – but within it are rivulets of magic that go a long way. Di Adams’ scientist-turned-cleaner Hester is resolutely dishevelled and demonstrably unpolished, and Adams is so relaxed in her role she makes the whole stage come alive; she is the ease of the play. Right there with her is Galanos, whose Lydia – morally messy, burbling with life, somehow terribly vulnerable – brings sunlight to this tomb of a room. Waterman’s Judith is crisp and severe, but you can see she is wounded.
As Meridee, her rival, Downing keeps her pain more deeply hidden; she keeps even the audience at a distance. The play spirals into a series of conflicts between the four that congeal together. It’s not pretty, which is the best thing about it.
Tass wants to keep us out of the muck. This single-room set feels too open (designed with wood accents and minimalist dressing by Tobhiyah Stone Feller) to make De Groen’s explosive revelations land with real damage. We stay close to the surface, in the more immediate hurts and haunts, trapped with Alec’s ghost just as these women are shaped by his transgressions.
It’s only in the final moments of the play, after the women have torn each other to shreds, that Hester offers a glimpse of something beyond grim Darwinistic individualism. On her way out, she suggests another vision: moving towards each other, rather than competition; community, rather than sole survival. But even this feels insincere: just another superficial gesture.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 21, 2020 as "Evolutions of treachery".
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