Olivia Jane Parker’s thoughtful direction of this Australian Premiere production engagingly brought to life what is essentially a collection of letters to Sugar, an online advice columnist, and her often extraordinary responses. In lesser hands this could have been a stand-and-deliver presentation of monologues, but it certainly wasn’t that.
The stage adaptation of the real-life epistolary exchanges has four characters, Letter Writers #1 – #4 bringing us the voices of the many advice-seeking authors who wrote to Sugar in the online journal The Rumpus. While some of them recur in the course of the play, the one constant is Sugar herself.
All five were well cast. The four Letter Writers contrasted interestingly with each other, as well as drawing distinctions between the many characters they each represented. Jack Robins’ characters were robust, comic, even aggressive at times, but he was at his most effective in the extended letter from Living Dead Dad, whose anguish over the death of his son provided Sugar with her greatest emotional challenge in finding a response. Deborah Walsh brought a telling depth and insight to her characters. Her interpretation of the impact of her character’s miscarriage was especially poignant. Oswin Kwan had several very strong moments, one of the most striking being his performance as the trans gender writer whose family had rejected him. As Letter Writer #4, Hayley Carter brought an impressive quietness and dignity to her many characters. At other times, all four of those actors played important roles in relating to one another or illustrating the events surrounding each other’s letters and replies.
Central to the action was the splendid performance of Michelle Hrvatin as Sugar. She showed convincing compassion and empathy when needed, and firmness, even abruptness on other occasions. There was a time, early on, when another character, in challenging her idiosyncratic method of replying to letters, asked Sugar if all this was about her. Although she responded otherwise, in fact it is in many ways just that. Hrvatin was fully convincing as a person who, in trying to find the best answer to others, told of Sugar’s own, often parallel experiences. While this was occasionally at length, we did not tire of her sensitive and thoughtful performance. Further, she conveyed a wit and sometimes tongue-in-cheek humour to her interactions with her writers.
To enliven the presentation, the production made good use of a number of techniques – the non-participating actors mimed their supportive reactions; the actors were placed variously on the sparse stage or on the stairs in the aisles; they shared dialogue with the actors central to various scenes; and occasionally directly interacted with Sugar. Many of the scenes were sensitively supported by the quiet keyboard underscore of Alana Lymn who was at her best in illustrating those gentler moments.
Because this was a play based on the written word, it required – and held – our attention and concentration. I was very glad to have been at this Premiere, and the warm and enthusiastic response of the small opening night audience thoroughly supported that.