The inspiration for Rebecca Meston’s exquisite new play, Drive is Captain Lisa Nowak, a NASA astronaut. Here reimagined as Capt. Stella Jones who has just returned from a long mission to find her marriage broken beyond repair and her lover, a fellow astronaut has left her for a flight attendant. She drives 14 hours to confront the woman who had supplanted her lover’s affections. She was found with duct tape, a disguise, photos of women tied up, various weapons and was reportedly wearing an adult diaper so she didn’t have to stop. Meston’s text takes her audience on a triumphant, empathetic journey into her psyche. After this performance I did some googling and the material I found regarding Captain Nowak’s story made for particularly nauseating reading. The situation is described in the most lurid of details; the ‘love triangle’, focus on the adult diaper and seems to find some sadistic glee in taking a woman who has quite literally gone as high as a human can go and bringing her down to earth. Meston’s text and Sasha Zahra’s brave, visceral production put her emotions and motivations at the centre with such grace and clarity that for the entire 45 minutes it’s impossible to look away.
Meston cites enigmatic ‘fallen, deviant women’ such as Hedda Gabler and Anna Karenina as her inspirations (both written by men) women who don’t fit in with the roles that a patriarchal society has placed on them. Their motivations and characters have been subject to debate for decades and they usually get pinned down to something as simplistic as ‘evil’ or ‘crazy’. Captain Stella Jones is exceptional; she is at the top of her field, has completed a long mission in space; the kind of achievement only a handful of human beings can claim. Her focus and her experience have disconnected her from most other people; and the one other person who could understand what she has gone through has betrayed and abandoned her for another. Personally, I believe her response has a certain logic that’s in line with the profundity of her situation.
Sasha Zahara has achieved a coup de grace in her vision for this production. Stella’s drive is evoked with elegiac synchronicity by every member of the production team. Ian Moorhead’s sound design with it’s many voice overs (Sam Mcmahon, Tony Mack, Hew Parham and Mr Moorhead provide the vocals), soundscape and music choices (especially how in a time of crisis, songs on the radio are deeply resonant) develop a masterful relationship with the performers. One of the most brilliant choices in the text is turning Siri, the virtual assistance into a fully-fledged character. Like the film her the one thing Stella can connect to is an automated machine. Meg Wilson’s set and lighting design are a breath-taking evocation of Stella’s psyche; she effortlessly glides between locations; space, the open road but also consciousness and memory. Congratulations to Jacinta Anderson (Stage manager, Sound and Lighting technician) for bringing their vision to life with perfect timing.
At the centre of all this is Lizzy Falkland’s inhabitation of Stella’s character; her dedication and commitment to her internal life mean that we the audience are experiencing her journey right alongside her. She shows how pain and trauma can create tunnel vision; she has a Greta Garbo like gift for conveying many, sometimes conflicting emotions with just her eyes. These are the eyes of a person whose emotions have reached such a peak that they are running on auto pilot. Someone who has experienced a lifetime of slights, underestimation, loss, disappointment and disconnect and is responding the only way she knows how. Sasha Zahra’s decision to have her play much of her performance sitting down makes for some fascinating physical choices; Larissa Mcgowan has choreographed subtle and evocative movements for her upper body. Falkland’s hands and shoulders convey a whole character arc. Her performance is a sublime lesson in empathy.
This is very much Falkland’s night, but she receives strong support from co-stars Ashton Malcom and Christopher Pitman. Malcom has the challenge of playing her characters from Stella’s perspective; Candy the flight attendant and a journalist chronicling her return are played with heightened femineity that occasionally delves into the grotesque, an unsettling insight into how Stella can view other women. Her performance however grows in nuance, especially towards the end as Stella begins to see Candy’s humanity. It’s a difficult performance to navigate and one Malcom pulls off with aplomb. Pitman pulls off a remarkable dual performance as Stella’s husband and lover; I was so immersed that I failed to realise these performances were the work of the same actor until curtain call. Her lover has an effortless charisma and sex appeal that is made very clear in the text. The disconnection and dissolution between her and her schlubby husband make for a brief, fascinating dynamic. The way he dehumanises her in his assessment of her is callous, but Pitman plays him with enough vulnerability to feel genuinely moved for both.
A film based on Captain Nowak’s story is in development starring Natalie Portman and incidentally directed by two men. This play is especially thoughtful in how women’s stories and experiences are explored in fiction and the media. Meston’s telling of it is deeply personal and allows space to explore the complexities and nuances of her protagonist’s story. The connection is so strong that we aren’t tempted to dismiss or disparage her but rather form a connection and understanding with her. This is something that is still unfortunately rare, especially in the mainstream.
Drive was a resplendent theatrical experience gifted by some highly talented artists, whom I sincerely hope to see emerge as prominent and exciting voices in Australian (and international theatre).
Plays at Theatreworks until June 15th.
Photographer: Jodie Hutchinson