“Why would I need to hurt myself?”
The scabrous humour of Bruce Norris’ last play Clybourne Park was a huge success seeing a West End transfer from the Royal Court and a clean sweep of drama awards on both sides of the Atlantic. He returns to the Royal Court very soon with The Low Road but the Gate Theatre has mounted a revival of his 2002 play Purple Heart. Set in an anonymous Midwestern city, a family struggles to rebuild their lives after the death of Gene, a soldier in the Vietnam War, the impact of such a terrible loss affecting his mother, his wife and his son in different ways.
Norris dissects the complexity of grief on the different members of this family with his customary excoriating insight, challenging what society deems to be the correct emotional responses with the unconventional Carla. Rejecting the conventional tropes of mourning, the generic platitudes and proffered casseroles from oppressively well-meaning neighbours, she lounges in her dressing gown, swigging as much booze as she can. But there’s little escape at home – her son Thor is acting out on his increasingly violent imagination and mother-in-law Grace is relentless with her forced good cheer barely masking a concern or propriety. It is takes the arrival of a stranger at the door, a veteran with his own agenda and a box of doughnuts, to really shake up the broken dynamic of this family.
The play was written during the build-up to the war in Iraq and it is tempting to see the anger of lessons unlearnt here, but what it is clear is the way in which Norris utilises the sharpest humour in his cracking dialogue as he brutally pummels his characters. It is almost too much in the case of Carla, Amelia Lowdell is strong in portraying the conflicted mix of swirling emotion but it’s so abrasive, so stinging, that the balance doesn’t quite feel right. Linda Broughton’s insistent Grace becomes more sympathetic despite her endless nagging and there’s a neat sense of obliqueness about Oliver Coopersmith’s Thor, quite how much of this dysfunction has been internalised is never apparent, the legacy of the future left somewhat in question.
Christopher Haydon’s production streaks along with an unflagging energy (though the interval doesn’t seem strictly necessary), the pitch-perfect period detailing of Simon Kenny’s 70s living room set providing the claustrophobic arena for the interplay and as the mysterious Purdy, Trevor White has a wonderfully enigmatic creepiness that maintains an ambivalence throughout the show. Such is the strength of the earlier scenes and the formative dialogue that by the time that the denouement comes crashing down, it almost feels a little contrived, an unnecessary insertion of drama into something that is surprisingly subtle in the way it tackles how we confront, or otherwise, losses almost too difficult to comprehend.