By Naomi Hamer
We may not expel a female student for kissing a boy outside a school dance in 2019 but we still hear news stories and think pieces about girls who have been sent home for wearing distracting clothing or too much makeup. Or for disrupting the strict moral codes that we prescribe within our wider communities both here in Australia and around the world. It is this that Morning Sacrifice questions, why is a young girl’s action or appearance more important than their right to an education? And what better place to ask these questions than in The Star of the Sea Theatre, Stella Maris College and with a cast made up of actresses who work professionally as teachers.
Dymphna Cusack’s Morning Sacrifice highlights the tensions between conservative and progressive values and the question of whether a school’s perceived reputation is more important than the student’s right to an education and the implications this has on their futures. This is as important a discussion to be had in 2019 as it was in 1938 where this play takes place. Set in the fictional staffroom of Easthaven Girls High School, the question of whether or not to expel ex-school captain Mary Grey underlies every teachers interactions on Monday 20 August and the last week of term. It isn’t clear at first what Grey has done to be on the tips of everyone’s tongues until the tensions between the teachers rises so high that the witnessing teacher takes it upon herself to retell the evening in question - that she saw Grey kissing a boy in the dark at the school dance and in doing so, put the school’s reputation at risk. Tensions between the teachers were already high enough without adding educational inspectors visiting almost unannounced and the marking of school exams to everyone’s piles.
When three older teachers back the assistant principal, Miss Portia Kingsbury played as the overbearing motherly figure by Taylor Owynns (the voice of Transport for NSW) and three younger, more progressive teachers are cognisant of the damage this could have on Mary Grey’s future application for a scholarship to study medicine it is up to the youngest teacher on staff, Miss Sheila Ray as the deciding vote. Miss Sheila Ray, played by Evie McCutcheon until this moment has looked up to Miss Portia Kingsbury as her mentor and confidante. A teacher who took her under her wings while she was a student before going on to win the University Medal. She is now facing her wrath from a clash of values but also as she is newly engaged to be married. A tension at the heart of the performance due to the laws of the time which meant that all female public servants had to resign when they got married. And a similar predicament to fellow teacher Miss Gwyn Carwithin (Maddie Boyle), a vision in red who has been engaged for five years but enjoys her work too much to give it up. Although a missed phone message from her fiance and the added moral pressure from her mentor has left Ray so fragile that she throws herself under a bus, killing herself.
At the heart of Morning Sacrifice is Cusack’s fast paced and mouthy dialogue, written in 1942 the language helps to transport us to 1938 but it means a contemporary audience cannot stop listening for a moment. To this end, some of the performers were stumbling over their lines but this didn’t take away from the fast paced nature of the performance. The set design and direction is by Rough Hewn Theatre’s artistic director Geoff Cartwright who does a great job of bringing this period drama to life. With the beautiful shrub green set and rustic desks bringing the staffroom to life. The costumes transported us back perfectly to 1938 with vintage dresses and coats by The Wardrobe Costumiers. Of special note Miss Sheila Ray’s baby blue button front dress and Miss Gwyn Carwithin’s red dress and perfectly tailored grey coat. The vintage hairstyles worn by the teachers are also reminiscent of this period with twisted updo styles and simple makeup used to highlight the teachers features. One small but important detail that was missed though was the changing of the date on the calendar after the sudden death of Ray when it was clear it was a new day.
Morning Sacrifice marks the final production for Rough Hewn Theatre, a non professional theatre troupe originally established by Stella Maris College, Manly in 2006 to set up a theatre for young people in Manly. Later in 2015, Rough Hewn changed course, focusing on working with and for women theatre practitioners of all ages throughout their careers - from directors, performers, writers, producers and production crew.
Morning Sacrifice beautifully illustrates the pressures felt most acutely during this time but still today over the desire for career and the longing for love and marriage which were mutually exclusive at the time by law. The conservative values represented by the older female teachers are portrayed as gossipy and bitter towards their younger counterparts with partners and the student Grey whose morals were the question of the play. Whilst Morning Sacrifice has some nuance for a play written in 1942, I wonder whether it is possible to bring more nuance than older unmarried women as married to their jobs or tending to their cats? That’s a world I want to see.
Morning Sacrifice is playing at The Star of the Sea Theatre, Manly from Thursday 17 - Saturday 26 October 2019.
All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.