By BRUCE DENNILL
Family Secrets / Directed by Alan Swerdlow / Pieter Toerien’s Montecasino Theatre, Fourways, Johannesburg
Taking as part of its theme the notion of a soap opera – one of protagonists, Grazia, is a lifelong fan of the medium and her son, Adamo, writes them for television – this piece by Italian playwright Enrico Luttman is structured as two acts of dialogue-heavy interactions (Adamo occasionally breaks the fourth wall to narrate directly to the audience) that unpack the troubled relationship between a young man who has hit an existential crisis regarding his work and where he is headed and his mother, faced with some rather more pressing issues of her own, and possessed of a personality that makes supporting her a true labour of love.
Sven Ruygrok, fresh off a star turn in Equus, shows off his range and, on this evidence, suggests that, given the opportunities, he’ll become an ever-bigger draw on the theatre stage, having already made a memorable impression in film. His performance is difficult to fault, with every expression and nuance delivered with precision and charisma as Adamo makes sense of his past, including a broken relationship with his father. Dorothy Ann Gould’s character calls for a fair amount of melodrama – she’s angry and frustrated, and has plenty of reason to be – and the actress leans into that part of the role, with Grazia’s favourite armchair taking a worrying amount of abuse as matters come to a head.
The nature of the play – as mentioned, it’s essentially two people talking about a narrow range of topics – means that, in the slower patches, it can feel like there’s not quite enough story to fill the space. Luttman’s writing is not unlike a soap opera in that, while it flows well enough, the dialogue can feel a touched forced from time, which may hinder effective connecting with the characters. It must be noted, however, that this perspective comes from a place where the subject matter – the ache of a broken family and the painful unveiling of a number of previously private details – is, happily, not a scenario that can be directly related to. After the performance, talking to fellow audience members, however, it becomes abundantly clear that this is not necessarily the majority view and that those members of the crowd who see their own family situations reflected in the action onstage are profoundly moved, not only understanding what Grazia and Adamo are going through, but revisiting, for better or worse, their own past or present experiences.
The play looks great, with Kosie Smit’s clever design and director Alan Swerdlow’s knowing humour playing a role in the presentation of Grazia’s compact home as a set in a television studio, with a small “Studio” sign at the back of the stage that turns off as the characters take their positions and large studio lights supporting changing moods. There is also an enjoyably light segment – for all that this piece is marketed as a comedy, it’s arguably more of a drama for the bulk of the running time – involving the most ridiculous of the soap opera cliches, including the posing, staring into space and angling of profiles to best catch the light. This helps to leaven the heavier mood of some of the segments that surround it.
In that Family Secrets involves relationships that everyone can recognise at some level – we all have (or are) parents and all were (or have) children – it has something to offer a wide audience. As discussed above, it may be there are levels of intensity in terms of identifying with the themes, but there are also plenty of strengths to appreciate in the craft behind the production.