Review by Bella Wellstead
To have a notable 42nd birthday is, at best, unlikely. It’s not a big milestone. You cannot expect a royal letter, nor greater legal freedoms, nor a red sports car left by a generous stranger. You can perhaps expect a grisly hangover or the ache of aging joints.
You don’t expect to discover your spouse has died.
It is 4.30am the day after George has turned 42, and he has just found his wife Peggy cold on the couch. She’s curled under a colourful quilt, only her hair peeking out into the frosty morning. She seems peaceful. Cosy. Like at any moment, she might turn and stretch. Accompany him back to bed for a few blissful hours before their two daughters awaken.
George sits on a nearby loveseat, a glass of red wine idle in his hand. On the coffee table in front of him, the debris of his 42nd birthday lays strewn. A chocolate cake, wearing lopsided candles and with crumbling walls. A bedraggled Barbie doll. A collection of toppled party hats, multicoloured and splitting at the seams. The scene is domestic, relaxed, intimate. The audience has been invited to the modest home of this young family to recline for an hour under the purr of the flight path overhead.
Crystallised under a glaring blue wash, it is clear that the comfort of this scene is artificial. George sits in a liminal space between life and death. Between the affectionate glow of a family birthday celebration and the impending loneliness of a widowed father. He is grieving.
As the show goes on, it becomes increasingly ambiguous what exactly he is grieving. Peggy? His life with her?
Or his own life, as it was before the spectre of single fatherhood threatened to engulf it.
Dallas Palmer’s performance is laced with a balance of bitterness and tenderness that interrogate the love that George has for his wife. He describes Peggy as an excessive drinker and a gambler of money she has not earned. It is with a meld of affection and frustration that he discusses her casual “pick and choose” Catholicism. He designates her a wonderful mother, then moments later, explains that their youngest is her favourite of the pair. The portrait he paints of Peggy is unflattering and uncompromising.
And yet, he traverses the five stages of grief as he moves around their living room, reoccupying the spaces and memories he shared with Peggy. One moment he sits, straight-backed, spitting resentful prose about her vices. The next, he’s curled delicately on the floor at the foot of her couch, cradling a teddy bear and reminiscing about the girls’ births. In another still, he viciously taunts her about his many infidelities. Ultimately, George blames his wife for her death. Criticises her for leaving him with the kids. Condemns her for the person she was when she was alive. However, he also tenderly laments the loss of that very person.
The lighting states shift jarringly as the morning draws on. First blue, then a pale moonlight glow which gives way to the brightening warmth of early sunlight. Each change reminds us that George will soon have to swallow his apprehension, begin to accept his wife’s death, and commence the administrative work of putting her to rest. It has been hours since he has found Peggy’s body, and their children will soon be up and about the house. He cannot let his daughters face the cruel reality of their mother’s corpse.
George attempts an aggressive last-ditch bargain, roaring for his wife to sit up. As Palmer sounds his final pleading cry and a blackout engulfs the stage, we are left to wonder what we owe the dead – and, perhaps more importantly – what do they owe us?