Peter Goldsworthy’s 1993 novella Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam was adapted for the stage by actor-writer Steve Rodgers (the writer behind King of Pigs, which played the Old Fitz Theatre in August to critical acclaim). Rodgers’ adaptation won him the 2015 Griffin Lysicrates Prize and now, presented by the National Theatre of Parramatta, Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam is having its world premiere production at Riverside Theatres.
Directed by Darren Yap, Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam is a highly confronting, controversial and provocative piece about the ties that bind families and the extreme lengths to which some may be prepared to go, in the name of love. It’s the story of a tightknit family of four – parents Linda (Emma Jackson) and Rick (Justin Smith) and children Ben (Liam Nunan) and Emma (Grace Truman), nicknamed ‘Wol’. The couple creates something of a bubble for their family, doing what they can to shield their children from what they perceive as toxic influences from the outside world (even the news is eventually kept out of the house by a decision to dispose of the television). The family is also engaged in their Christian faith.
Of course, there are some things against which a parent is powerless to protect their child. The family is rocked when Wol is diagnosed with leukaemia and, despite treatment, her ultimate prognosis is poor. Feeling failed by their faith and deeply disturbed by and willing to go to extraordinary lengths to assuage Wol’s fear of dying, they agree on a course of action that will leave audiences polarised.
Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam forces audiences to grapple with issues about which none of us like to think. This is an affecting, artfully constructed play that puts us deep in moral greyness about what we would do for our own family members in dark and desperate times. Yap’s direction has guided the production away from being sentimental and, instead, he’s created something that is painfully real, something that is universal to the human experience and something that conflicts and challenges. And capped at 80 minutes, there’s no labouring on those truths nor is there any gratuitousness.
Max Lambert’s and Sean Peter’s compositions beautifully complement Yap’s work. The pair has shrewdly woven a soundscape in and out of the events onstage that never distract from nor cheapen those events. Emma Vine’s rendering of the family home is not only a great use of the Lennox Theatre stage, but carefully conceived to reveal fundamental characteristics of its inhabitants, centred around a soaring bookcase that foregrounds the prime position that books occupy here (reading perhaps the most crucial pastime binding the four together).
This production’s success also owes to its excellent cast. Jackson and Smith are perfectly paired as the parents. Jackson’s Linda is a headstrong mother deeply committed to motherhood, and whose progression from poised to fraught – as her daughter’s condition deteriorates – feels genuine. Similarly, Smith is heartbreaking in his portrayal of a father so desperate to do the ‘right’ thing by his daughter, regardless of what that may be. Nunan is engaging and excellent as Ben at a variety of ages, while Truman makes a remarkable debut on the professional stage as Wol. She’s particularly outstanding in a pivotal scene, in which the terror she feels at the prospect of her death is brought home to her parents. Completing the cast, Valerie Bader is wonderful playing both the children’s grandmother and Wol’s doctor, while Mark Lee is humane and sensitive as the children’s grandfather and the local priest. There’s not a weak link to be found here; this is a totally committed and focused ensemble.
National Theatre of Parramatta’s Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam is gut-punching and heartrending, posing questions about whether it’s possible to love too much. It must have a life beyond its premiere season.