It’s pleasing to see Red Stitch escaping the confines of their modest St Kilda abode in this co-production with GPAC, staged at the Arts Centre. Showing their usual dedication to new Australian works, Extinction is a story by venerated author Hannie Rayson, that on the surface appears to be an ‘issues’ play, but it’s focus on the plight of the endangered Tiger Quoll in Victoria’s Otway Ranges is actually a Trojan horse for a rather typical relationships drama of the trivial kind.
The plot is driven by an accident on a stormy night, when coal-mining entrepreneur Harry (Colin Lane) hits a quoll with his car and brings it into the local veterinary clinic where American wildlife volunteer and animal research scientist Piper (Ngaire Dawn Fair) helps him try to save the stricken animal. Piper is a bleeding heart who would rather pay for her aging dog to have chemotherapy than even consider ending his misery. So when her boyfriend Andy (Brett Cousins), the practice’s vet, chooses to euthanize the quoll due it’s broken spine, it puts a divide in their relationship that is further exacerbated by his decision to keep his own terminal illness from her.
Andy’s sister Heather “Dix” Dixon-Brown (Natasha Herbert) is however aware of his condition and conservation of her brother’s life weighs as heavily on her mind as does the preservation of the Tiger Quoll. Dix is an ecology professor and university powerbroker with enough connection to government monies to source funding for Piper to attempt to locate more of the threatened marsupial in the Otways.
Rayson’s play is full of ethical dilemmas of both the environmental and relationship kind. Conservative observations into Harry’s intentions as a mining industrialist are questioned and the importance of ecological conservation are rightfully preached, but the dialogue often loses all sense of naturalism as the playwright attempts to shoehorn argument into her character’s mouths. This isn’t helped by some pretty ligneous acting by Lane, who completely lacks the charisma and sexual allure requisite of his role, and a clear lack of chemistry between Fair and her onstage lovers.
Director Nadia Tass appears to be reaching for a weighty, meaningful tone with this production that works against the feather-light denouement of Rayson’s script that in the second act largely devolves into an impish comedy. Technical aspects of the production are essentially functional. Shaun Gurton’s set design is practical at best, while David Parker’s lighting and video designs show a lack of imagination.
There are some nice ideas at work here, comparing the frailty of the human condition with the damage our own species has inflicted upon the overall ecology of the planet, but it’s almost as though Rayson doesn’t have faith in the audience to accept that idea as entertainment without coating it in a clichéd romantic plot. While Tass works hard to find meaning, ultimately her cast seem most comfortable playing up the farcical elements, only Cousins seems to truly be working on the same plane as his director.
This is moderately entertaining fare, but certainly not a species to go out of your way to save.