The play has a sense of authenticity, and was written by the playwright after she was diagnosed with a life-changing illness.
In the State Theatre Company of SA and Sydney Theatre Company co-production, the lives of married couple Paul and Gabby are seriously challenged when Paul is hospitalised after a car accident and informed that he will be a quadriplegic.
Given the storyline, Smith could have slipped into writing sentimental melodrama but her play is, instead, a realistic study of human relationships, including the excitement of initial sexual attraction, the joy of childbirth and the intimacy shared in parenting.
Interspersed with the positives are the tensions that arise from the inevitable differences in perceptions of the world, being attracted to another person and the fact that, over time, individuals change and become different people.
Director Geordie Brookman uses the narrative, the cast’s acting talents and Nigel Levings’ outstanding colourful and inventive lighting design to transport audience members from the everyday world to the surreal, from public places of argument to innermost, private human thoughts, from suburbia to mountain tops.
Darren Gilshenan is impressive as Paul, the engineer who is dedicated to assisting with building projects in Burma; he is a likeable husband and mate, a thoughtful and concerned citizen of the world, and a man dealing with immense personal tragedy. Gilshenan – known for his roles in TV comedies The Moodys and Here Come the Habibs – brings charm, charisma and comedy to the role but he also has moments of grief, pain and fear, which he conveys agonisingly clearly to the audience.
Stage and screen actress Lisa McCune is a delight as Gabby, the wife who is snappy, unhappy and troubled that she and her husband have been growing apart; she is also frightened that she cannot take on the role of being his full-time carer. McCune is equally comfortable as a provocative, sensual and forward university student and as a woman married for more than 20 years; she shifts swiftly from positive to negative emotions, from young adult to mature woman and from being seductive to distant.
Paul’s friend Marty is played by Luke Joslin, who is very funny. He achieves a good balance of mild “Ockerism” tempered with genuine sensitivity; his timing is excellent and he is very entertaining as Elvis when Paul is hallucinating.
Given the gravity of the situation, Smith has written some good witty lines and the cast members find terrific moments of comedy, such as when Paul and Marty – like naughty schoolboys – uncontrollably giggle in a yoga therapy class with a stuttering instructor.
Writer's cancer battle inspired Machu Picchu
There are also images that leave a lasting impression: Paul in his hospital room, left hanging in a sling lifter, and when he sits in a spot-lit wheelchair communicating with a far-away Gabby.
Designer Jonathon Oxlade has sensibly divided the stage into a hospital room and an empty space that allows flashbacks to occur in a variety of settings, such as a university disco, a home, a backyard and Machu Picchu. Perspex sliding windows let us see characters approaching but also, on a deeper level, are a manifestation of the voices and arguments within ourselves that drive us, tear us apart and console us.
Renato Musolino, Elena Carapetis and Annabel Matheson play a range of characters – such as the psychiatrist, family friend, daughter, and back-up singers Guilt and Pain – and all make significant contributions to the overall success of the production.
Machu Picchu is a sobering reminder that we ought to be making the most of what we have, each day, and not taking anything for granted, because what we have can be taken away in a blink.
Machu Picchu is being presented by the State Theatre Company of SA and Sydney Theatre Company at the Dunstan Playhouse until May 1.
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