By Isabella Olsson
Emerging Sydney creative Lara Balken has taken on the fairly daunting task of serving as writer, director and lead in her original play “Exit Wounds”, showing as part of the Sydney Fringe festival. The play follows 23 year old Sammy (played by Balken) as she navigates sex, love, and terminal illness, and explores how her diagnosis impacts her relationships with both her friends and her partner. Balkan and all the creatives should be applauded for their gumption and drive to produce an original work that discusses difficult topics, and I wish them the best in workshopping this piece further.
Unfortunately, while “Exit Wounds” tackles some big issues, the play is hindered from the beginning by a script that lacks direction, and bites off a lot more than it can chew – it wants to talk about mortality, but exactly what it wants to say, it’s less sure. It vies for sincerity and naturalism, and yet instead feels forced and decidedly unnatural, sliding into the “sick-lit” trope of exploiting chronic illness for the sake of superficial external conflict.
Dramatically, it is clunky and lacks momentum – characters come and go without motive or necessity, more than once announcing “I’m going to go now” as impetus for exiting a scene. The issues tackled are laboured and yet are not resolved with any particular nuance or insight. The second half of the play in particular seems to repeat itself over and over and characters interact with very little purpose, rehashing the same melodrama scene after scene and making its hour and a half run time feel a lot longer. There are twists that aren’t explained and shock reveals that don’t quite hit, and as a result I couldn’t quite tell you how the play ends – I spent the last few scenes trying to piece together all the loose strands, and left the theatre with a whole lot of unanswered questions.
This lack of focus is also the fatal flaw of its characters, who for the most part lack strong, discernible personalities and fall into predictable, almost soap-opera like rhythms with each other – Sammy is constantly at war with her womanising best friend Zach (Ilya Ilyashyk), who is both devoted to her care and yet constantly (and bizarrely) guilts her for the toll her disease takes on him. His and Sammy’s conversations are peppered with playful barbs (“you fucking moron”/“you’re such an idiot”/“I hate you”) but it rings less like genuine friendship and more like a shallow attempt to imitate intimacy. Sammy’s astronomer ex-girlfriend Tash (Chrissy Mae Valentine) flits in and out of her life, never staying onstage enough to establish her personality beyond the superficial, and while Zach and Sammy’s friend Eli (Sam Martin) is a breath of fresh air onstage, his existence in the play goes unexplained and ultimately contributes very little to the plot itself.
Despite its flaws, there are some lovely moments in this show. The lighting (Marie Echevarria) is thoughtful and creative, and serves to cleverly transform the otherwise bare space into various different locations, including a nightclub and a church. The play plays with chronology interestingly, and the flashbacks of Sammy and Tash’s relationship are sweet and charming. Sam Martin’s performance as Eli is a particular standout, and he invigorates his scenes with a refreshing energy and impeccable comic timing that will delight an audience.
These individual elements, however, are not enough to compensate for the underlying problems affecting the play, and “Exit Wounds” ultimately suffers from a crippling lack of authenticity. As a story that deals with chronic terminal illness, it feels ignorant to the realities of that experience, and its attempts to create realism unfortunately do the exact opposite. It is perhaps telling that despite Sammy’s chronic illness being a central and consistently discussed topic, we are never told exactly what it is she is suffering from – a lack of specificity that feels noticeably disingenuous and leaves gaping holes in our understanding of her story arc.
Furthermore, the main “thesis” of the play seems to be that a sick person has a responsibility to put the feelings and needs of their able-bodied carers above their own, a sentiment that sits fairly uneasily with me. Most regrettably, the insincerity of the play drives a wedge between the audience and the characters, making it incredibly difficult to sympathise with their emotional journeys, and compromising any pathos we might have otherwise experienced.
There is undoubtedly potential in the script and premise, and with such a dedicated creative team I am sure future workshops will see this play grow and evolve beyond this first draft. I congratulate them on their achievement and I wish them all the best for the rest of their run.
All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.