PROVO — In the Australian aborigine culture many people experience a walkabout. In this rite of passage a young person travels through the Outback on a journey of self-exploration. In many ways, Evening Eucalyptus is like a walkabout: both emphasize growing up. For both, the voyage is more important than the destination. And both have the potential to be meandering and aimless.
In this latest production from Zion Theatre Company, Arthur (played by David Lasseter) returns to his native Australia after a career in England. The housekeeper at his rural home is Abigail Baker (played by Anna Hargadon), a hardscrabble woman who fits in well with the Outback. Shortly thereafter two drifters, Zeek (played by Stephen Geis), Jody (played by Bryn Dalton Randall), and the aborigine Pindari (played by Robert Burch) arrive and start working as laborers on the ranch. Before long the sulking Arthur, the hot-tempered Zeek, and the vulnerable Pindari are on a collision course that will forever alter their lives.
Mahonri Stewart‘s script conveys the perfect mood to match the 19th century Australian setting of the play. The opening scene between Arthur and Abigail was ideal for the open, vast, beautiful emptiness of the terrain of the location. This scene eased me into the show and made me instinctively enjoy the two characters. However, the central aspect of the play—Arthur’s psychological journey—is not prominent enough until after the second act begins. This means that when intermission starts, there is not a compelling reason to return to the show after the first act.
Another major problem with the script is found in the character of Pindari, whose major purpose is to give the White lead character the mystical advice he needs to solve his problems. Thankfully, Pindari’s culture is treated with enough respect that the script will not be overtly offensive for most audience members. Nevertheless, this aspect of Pindari’s character becomes noticeably distasteful when combined with the character’s ultimate fate (about which I will not say anything, in order to avoid revealing any spoilers).
Lasseter’s performance is subtle, and it is clear in his early scenes that the character was trying to heal from some psychological trauma. However, I felt that his line deliveries were often lacking energy, and there was little urgency in many of his scenes. Yet, Lasseter created an endearing character, and he clearly appreciated the psychological pain that his Arthur was experiencing. As Abigail, Hargadon was lacking in chemistry with Lasseter, but I enjoyed her plainspoken manner and plain way of dealing with her problems.
However, the supporting cast was less admirable than Lasseter and Hargadon. Burch’s poor diction made it difficult to understand many of his lines, and as a consequence I never completely understood the legend of the colored serpent that he told throughout the story. Geis and Randall were more understandable, but neither of them seemed like hardened vagrants that Zeek and Jody needed to be for the story to work. Jody in particular seemed too clean and articulate for the tough life that the character had lived.
The most appealing visual aspect of Evening Eucalyptus was the set (constructed by Jason Sullivan). With its lovely star field and the rustic porch and lonely eucalyptus tree, the set was an essential component of the mood that Stewart aimed to create with this production. The costumes (by Mahonri Stewart) were simple, but sufficient to evoke the Australian frontier, especially the functional dress that Abigail wore, which reflected the character’s practical nature. However, Pindari looked far too neat and clean to have been on a walkabout through the desert for weeks beforehand.
In addition to penning the script, Stewart also directed the production. Perhaps this is why the literary aspects of the script received a proper emphasis. Generally, Stewart was able to make me appreciate the characters, and he was superb in evoking the magical feeling of the vast wilderness that surrounded them. The most problematic aspect of the direction was the dreamtime, which was not visually appealing because of the sloppy, indistinct ways that the “spirits” moved on the stage.
Overall, I feel mixed about Evening Eucalyptus. With its two-hour running time the play is in no hurry to tell its story, and as a result the characters’ actions did not seem important throughout the entire evening. Yet, Evening Eucalyptus is a play that pushes the boundaries of theatrical convention in Utah County, and the sweet story of a broken man and a strong woman in a enchanted land is one that I won’t forget soon.