Eighteen-year-old Anna (Melissa Kahraman) has been on medication for so long she can’t remember who she is without it. Whereas once, as a little girl, she was a prodigious writing talent, able to fill hundreds of notebooks with imaginative stories, now her creativity appears lost to years of pills and prescriptions. She ponders if her talent was because of the medication or in spite of it. If she wanted to, she could just not take pills anymore and thereby discover who she really is. Anna’s consideration of this, along with the possibilities of having a boyfriend, going to university and the like are at odds with her mother Renée’s (Rachel Gordon) determination to continue to keep her safe. This is what makes Australian playwright Kendall Feaver’s multi-award-winning The Almighty Sometimes a family drama, but also much more.
Its appeal also comes from the “everydayness” within its complex issues of mental illness and consent. It starts with the mundane, late-night, post-party eats of Anna and Oliver (Wil Bartolo), who has just walked her home. Immediately, their humour engages the audience. Anna is confident and funny; Oliver is awkward. On “the pills” for seven years now, she has been stable for a long time, so she thinks she is now able to cope with change and deal with stress. It is also time for her to transition to an adult psychiatrist.
The unfolding story is about identity more than mental illness, as Anna’s diagnosis is never specified. While initially the deliberately elusive mentions of “the illness” and “disorder” are frustrating, before long the need for labels no longer matters. We are enticed to follow Anna’s story through Feaver’s beautiful writing and the performers’ impeccable interpretations. Notwithstanding a couple of later scenes being somewhat laboured, Act II moves us towards a poignant and emotional conclusion.
The domestic drama is made all the more compelling by the evenly matched performances of Kahraman and Gordon as mother and daughter protagonists. In her Queensland Theatre debut, Kahraman gives an epic, roller-coaster performance as Anna, transitioning between determination to be independent and vulnerability. Gordon also has a number of big moments, which allow her to share the raw emotion at the core of Renee’s experience. Bartolo is also impressive in his support.
Simone Romaniuk’s set design is appropriately simple. Ben Hughes’ lighting design is full of extremes. Music (including fleeting Fleetwood Mac strains) punctuates revelations to transition between scenes and emote events. Mike Willmett’s composition and sound design breathes life into every aspect of the story. And, after the lightness and brightness of the first act, even costuming drains the colour from Anna’s life as she retreats into herself.
Kendall Feaver’s debut work is provocative, complex and assured. Daniel Evans’ direction is appropriately sensitive and has the audience shifting in their sympathies. The Almighty Sometimes will break your heart and then warm it up again. There is joy among the darkness. It is playing at Billie Brown Theatre until 3rd September.
For more of Meredith Walker’s writings on theatre, check out Blue Curtains Brisbane