All That Is Hidden
As play titles go, Jane McCarthy’s “The Harvest” could arguably be misleading. Yet as McCarthy shows throughout “The Harvest,” she’s something of an expert when it comes to being misleading. If you’re thinking romanticised rural pastoral in populated, half harvested wheat fields you might want to think again. For while “The Harvest” is concerned with separating the chaff of lies from the wheat of truth, it does so by way of some Old Testament reckoning and retribution when sins and sinners come home to roost. So buckle up and hold on tight, for if it stumbles in the home stretch and struggles to cross the finish line, the suspenseful tension McCarthy generates throughout “The Harvest” proves unbearably brilliant in this dark tale where even second chances might not be enough to save you.
Throughout “The Harvest” McCarthy’s focused intelligence sets about unpacking ideas of family. A classic kitchen with gallons of tea, endless sandwiches, and family dinners, all the accoutrements of everyday domesticity, becomes a frontline where battles take place on a daily basis. Or a prison cell, with Lisa Krugel’s superb set design, steeped in two-tone and grey, making the Home Sweet Home cushion look sarcastically ironic. Even the black and white photographs look drained of life in this house that’s not a home. Here a wounded Charlotte, trying to recover from the death of her son and her subsequent addiction to pills, invites group member Shane in for coffee. A fellow addict in recovery, Shane has a past and a present that might be more than Charlotte bargained for. But he’s got something Charlotte’s attracted to, behaving like a skittish teenager whenever he’s around. Something Malcolm, her controlling and manipulative husband soon picks up on. Like his well pressed suit, tidy and neat with not a hair out of place, Malcolm’s family and home life are a perfect extension of himself. Always knowing what’s best for his weak willed wife, and for his long suffering stepson, Evan, Malcolm decides he doesn’t want Shane in their lives. But Shane has other plans, and one or two secrets, which could well send their lives spinning in entirely different directions.
Exponents of the well-made play will find much to enjoy in McCarthy’s taut script, built as it is on a hard earned, self-conscious fastidiousness. If an over reliance on short, sharp, staccato sentences sees the demands of the story being subsumed by those of structure at times, they can still pack quite the wallop in places. Like a Rubik's Cube, or its own judgemental morality, “The Harvest” strives towards an interlocking system in which everything fits. Alas, dramaturgically, not everything does. Where McCarthy crafts scenes of unbearable tension during the first two-thirds of “The Harvest,” some of the best, anywhere, in quite some time, the final third falls into an endless black hole of explanations, recriminations and justifications then keeps on digging, desperately searching for a workable ending. As the ending draws closer things start to feel ham-fisted and forced, with so many justifications muddying the waters, and with several looking decidedly uneasy under closer scrutiny. Yet by that time McCarthy has done more than enough to make you want to travel to the bitter end, even if, when you get there, it’s almost impossible to care about the figures left onstage or their respective plights.
Under Matthew Ralli’s impressive and perfectly paced direction, a four strong ensemble turn in four remarkably strong performances. It’s a testament to Marcus Lamb that he can take a character like the menacing and manipulative Malcolm, with no redeeming features or even a milligram of charm, who risks becoming a one dimensional villain, and can make him utterly compelling every moment he’s onstage. John Morton’s duplicitous Shane is an absolute marvel, with Morton beautifully balancing this complex and contradictory character. It cannot be overstated that Stephen O’Leary’s understated Evan is beautifully rendered, from his broad teenage grin right down to the minutest moment of timing. Melissa Nolan as the wounded Charlotte is an absolute revelation, turning in an utterly mesmerising and beautifully nuanced performance.
Within its taut structure “The Harvest” captures something of that punishing morality where all that is hidden will eventually be made known and payment will be mercilessly exacted for all past sins, even if an eye for an eye risks accused and accuser both going blind. Fascinating as that might be, McCarthy is never better than when she gets up close and personal. For McCarthy deals with dysfunctional dynamics in “The Harvest” like a contemporary Hitchcock, crafting tension and suspense to such a palpable degree even the Maestro would have felt envious. It might all end in a confusing whimper rather than the glorious bang it deserves, yet for most of its two hour journey “The Harvest” delivers the most exquisitely suspenseful theatrical experience you’re likely to enjoy for quite some time.
“The Harvest” by Jane McCarthy, presented by WitchWork Theatre Company and The New Theatre, runs at The New Theatre until March 16 before undertaking a national tour.