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Tuesday, 02 April 2013 13:09

"The Pig Iron People' is a quality production of a flawed play

Written by Steve Callahan
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The Details

In 1937 Australian dock-workers refused to load scrap iron into ships destined for Japan because imperial “fascist” Japan was attacking China.  Then-Attorney-General Robert Menzies threatened to jail any workers who refused to load this “pig iron”.   Thus Menzies, earned the soubriquet “Pig-iron Bob”.  He went on to lead the “Liberal” (actually conservative) party to victory and to become Australia’s longest-reigning Prime Minister.   His reactionary followers were called the “pig-iron people”.

The play deals with a culture clash between such people and two artsy members of a much younger, leftish generation as in 1996 Australia returned to conservative rule after thirteen years of left-wing administrations.  Despite program comments to the contrary, it is very useful to know this bit of Australian history in order to understand the social dynamics at play here and why the author holds some of his characters in such unmasked contempt.

Author John Doyle is a much-honored writer for television and radio, but this is his very first stage-play—and it shows.

Young writer Nick has come to live in a house on the ironically named Liberal Street in the inner-city.  His neighbor families are “the pig iron people”.  One couple is sweetly, happily married;  one couple has a marriage full of deep bitterness.   These are pretty much cartoons of uneducated red-neck working-class families.  A third family are Germans;  we never see the wife, but we meet the man—and he’s viciously hostile—a Nazi in manner if not in substance.  The barking of his equally vicious German shepherd is a constant annoyance to his neighbors.

Nick, the young writer, has lost his wife, and for seven years his mourning has put his career on hold.  As Nick is adjusting to his new neighbors he meets a young actress, April.  Their slowly growing relationship is the center of the play.  The memory—or perhaps ghost—of a vaudeville singer who once lived in this house drifts occasionally over the two lovers.

The older neighbors are instantly drawn to April, since they recognize her as a juvenile soap opera star—whose character was made to die.  (Because April got too old?   Or because she wouldn’t sleep with the producer?)

This is an all-student production—cast, director, designers—everybody—and they do some very fine work.  Kurt Hellerich and Dakota Mackey-McGee are utterly professional in the leading romantic roles.  You may remember Hellerich from his sterling performance in "Hello Again" a year ago.  He, among all the cast, makes the Aussie dialect most comfortably his own. 

The “pig iron people,” Nick’s older neighbors, are more of a challenge for young actors.  The men, particularly, are written pretty much as stereotypes—even clichés.  It is here that I got the strong impression that the playwright simply detests these people.  At one point the men, in a frenzy of paranoia worthy of the NRA, run about waving and firing their guns recklessly.   Cody Jolly and Christopher Pratt do yeomen’s work in bringing these characters to life, and in their more intimate moments they’re quite moving;  but the actors are burdened with the author’s dislike (and thence his cartoonish sketches) of these men.   (Pratt is also burdened with a quite ludicrous huge false beer-belly.)

The “pig iron” women are more sympathetically drawn, and Shaina Schrooten and Caroline Amos find little difficulty in making them believable and touching.

Jimmy Betts plays Kurt, the German.  Strong—even brutal—and ram-rod stiff despite his cane, Betts delivers Kurt’s searing, excoriating, almost surrealistically hostile phillipic to poor April.  He does so with an acetylene intensity—warning her that now that conservatives are in power all those left-wing, artsy free-loaders like her and Nick will have to shift for themselves.

Further script weaknesses appear in Act 2.  One by one—and with negligible motivation—as if the author were checking off a list—each of the “pig iron people” drop in to visit Nick and April—usually late at night, usually interrupting some very romantic moment.  Each one divulges the very deepest contents of their hearts and histories.  In one case (that of Jack) this purging of the soul to veritable strangers is staggeringly inappropriate for the character.  Well--what can an actor do?

So it’s a quality production of a flawed play—"The Pig Iron People".  It was directed by Rachel Roberts, and played at the Webster Conservatory March 29-31, 2013.

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