Love Conquers All: Review of Unpathed’s The Dreamer Examines His Pillow
In 2004 John Patrick Shanely wrote Doubt, a play that would go on to win both the Tony and Pulitzer prizes in 2005. The Dreamer Examines his Pillow (1985) is not this prize winner and is maybe representative of a younger writer still coming to terms with his medium. Set in the Bronx Dreamer is an examination of three characters interactions with love and the fears that lie therein.
Tommy and Donna are a couple who broke up some time earlier, yet they are still obviously attracted to one another. Tommy is now having an affair with her younger sister, something that’s gotten Donna’s goat, though Tommy is seemingly unmoved by her anger. To gain perspective on her own life Donna seeks out her reclusive father, a painter who has been unable to lift a brush since the death of his wife. This second scene is arguably the most interesting in the play, as the unnamed father figure has a recognizable past and a more substantial character. He tells of the deep love he had for his wife, but that the fear of being all consumed by that love drove him to mistreat and cheat on her. Through this scene the audience comes to realize that Donna and Tommy are repeating the same pattern, and so in the final scene Dad comes to sort Tommy out, bringing the play an abrupt, if not happy ending where love in finally embraced.
This is a humorous play and director Vashti Pontaks has done a good job to make sure the jokes are teased out of the script, because they are somewhat buried in the masses of exposition. Yet this play is quite perceptive in its own way. Shanley has a number of keenly observed insights into human nature and manages to communicate them through metaphors and stories that are both pithy and original. Once again however, these moments exist within the ‘continual discussions’, leaving the play to feel didactic, and ultimately just three scenes of argument. Nevertheless, this does not make his observations false; they are almost Proustian in places – pointedly when Tommy states that his identity is so fluid that he could not vouch for the person he’d be tomorrow for it would be totally different to the one he is today.
This is a play that succeeds or fails depending on the performances of the three actors. Tommy (played by Scott Lee) is a 20 something wastrel; he lounges around a deadbeat apartment in frayed white jeans whilst contemplating his Picasso-esque self-portrait. In performance Lee was able to play Tommy with just the right amount of leaden passivity. As a washed up ol’ dreamer, Lee struck a balance between the hopelessly derelict and the naïve hopefulness often found at the core of younger soul-searchers. Lee found his footing as he went along though it is possible that first night jitters got the better of him. One might have hoped for a touch more charisma in presentation, though it was obvious that this Tommy was quite happy living in the abyss and squalor that he had created for himself.
Donna (Ainslie Clouston) is a similarly untidy young woman who wears a tight fitting black slip dress with a leather jacket and combat boots. Clouston plays the exasperated lover well – she charges on stage, a firebrand of intensity, polarizing love as well as hate. Her verbal assault is unyielding, though we are able to see her softer moments when she allows Tommy a touch and embrace. It is unfortunate that such a character can behave as a sounding board, as it means that Clouston has to burn through a lot of didactic material. Thankfully, this isn’t too distracting.
For punters, it is arguable that the most interest character of the three is Donna’s father, simply known as ‘Dad’. Peter McAllum plays this old artist, paralysed by memories of a relationship eerily similar to Tommy’s and Donna’s. McAllum played ‘Dad’ with an authenticity only older players can muster. Seated on a couch in a red bathrobe drinking in solitude, McAllum gave off an aura of autocratic excellence though his humanity seeps through the cracks. Whether this is Shanley, or McAllum or a combination of both, it is quite lovely to watch the arc of a character who must abandon a slow suicide through alcohol to instead care for another human being – his daughter. This character holds the play together, and by the end the audience may well decide that story has really been about this man’s reawakening to life.
Overall the performances were solid though the comprehension and compulsion to stay with the story was sometimes lost in a cacophony of expository monologue. The danger with such a script is to become engulfed by the words instead of seizing them by the throat and taking control. It is also true that the use of accents (this time, from the Bronx) can risk losing lines and punch them to generic ‘accent’ sounding; hopefully this will lessen as the run continues.
This play is by no means a masterpiece, but it is competently directed and performed and certainly has something to say.
The Dreamer Examines His Pillow is play at the Tap Gallery until the 21st of December. For more information see Unpathed Theatre’s website: http://unpathed.com.au/dreamer-examines-his-pillow/