Suzie Miller dramedy explores illness and death within a family
The constellation of catastrophes that makes up a family is at the heart of Sunset Strip, Suzie Miller’s regional Australian drama, set in far-west NSW.
When Caroline (Georgina Symes), who has long since split for the big smoke, returns to the small town of her youth – in the middle of a dried-out dust bowl somewhere near Broken Hill – she’s more fragile than usual: she’s just been through chemotherapy and surgery for breast cancer, and her marriage has broken up. Dad Ray (Lex Marinos) has some form of dementia and her sister Phoebe (Emma Jackson) is caring for him – even though she’s fresh out of rehab, trying to win back custody of her kids, and about to marry Teddy (Simon Lyndon).
Caroline is the classic fish out of water with her family: she’s had more education, is financially better off, and her clothes are tailored and chic – “city clothes,” Teddy notes. She’s much more reserved than Phoebe, who we meet for the first time dancing her heart out, singing along loudly to ‘Throw Your Arms Around Me.’ Phoebe takes care of their dad with ease and a nurturing instinct, and she has a sense of humour about her situation. Jackson plays her with brightness and an open heart; you can’t help but love her.
Of course, there’s tension between the two sisters, whose lives have sharply diverged in adulthood. Phoebe keeps apologising for not being there for her sister during her illness; despite that absence, Phoebe expects Caroline, a lawyer, to help get her kids back. There are documents to sign; Caroline must serve as an additional interim guardian. They can no longer rely on their father to break the tension between them; they can’t even take their boat on the lake, because it’s long since dried up. And Caroline has a past with Teddy.
This story isn’t really anything new. The structure of it is well-worn and predictable, and it’s always fairly easy to anticipate what’s coming next as the drama unfolds. But while Miller hasn’t innovated within the family drama genre, she has found is its heart. Because it’s all so familiar, we’re quick to accept the emotional investment these tearjerkers demand; and because there’s a sense of safety that comes with familiar territory, it’s easier to shed tears as these sisters tearfully embrace, their father loses his grip on reality, and secrets are revealed.
Anthony Skuse brings compassion to the fore in this production; he directs with respect for the characters and a sensitive understanding of mental illness, addiction, and bodily trauma. As a result, the characters themselves seem to truly love and respect each other, even when conflicts arise, or when the occasionally-cliched plot tests that love. The actors seem to have a familial shorthand; small slights are ignored, or gamely challenged, within the comfort of unbreakable bonds – even Lyndon’s Teddy is aware of, and melds into, the family dynamics. For the most part, Miller’s dialogue rings true to its characters, and Caroline’s slow cracking-open feels genuinely rewarding.
While it’s not ambitious in subject matter or form, if you meet this play on its own terms as a family story told well, it’s possible to get swept up. And if you like a tearjerker, then you’ll love this.