The toll that mental illness can take not only on the sufferer but on their loved ones has rarely been rendered more explicitly and compellingly than in Australian author and broadcaster Anne Deveson’s 1991 memoir, Tell Me I’m Here. In the book, Deveson details her experiences after her son, Jonathan, was diagnosed with schizophrenia, including the extreme difficulty of finding proper treatment, Jonathan’s descent into addiction and homelessness, and ultimately, his early demise.
Now reimagined for the stage by playwright Veronica Nadine Gleeson (Nude Tuesday) and director Leticia Cáceres (The Drover’s Wife), the emotional impact of Anne and Jonathan’s story is, if anything, even more devastating. Largely narrated by Anne, played with brittle fierceness by stage and screen legend Nadine Garner, Tell Me I’m Here takes us through Jonathan’s life from birth – when a natal injury foreshadows his later demons – to death, along the way painting a harrowing portrait of a family in constant crisis, all but helpless in the face of Jonathan’s illness.
It's a deliberately sparse production. Set designer Stephen Curtis uses a table, a few chairs and a recessed bookcase to delineate the space, with the flats and floor kept stark white. The ensemble is small – Jana Zvedeniuk and Raj Labade play Jonathan’s siblings, Georgia and Josh, along with a few smaller roles; Sean O’Shea portrays both Jonathan’s father, Ellis, and Anne’s later partner, Robert; and Deborah Gallanos rounds out the main cast in a handful of supporting roles.
This makes a spartan setting for the jewel that is Tom Conroy’s performance as Jonathan. (You might have seen Conroy in My Brilliant Career, Ghosts and Jasper Jones for Belvoir, or 1984, Hay Fever and Spring Awakening for Sydney Theatre Company.) It’s an electrifying turn. Charismatic and chaotic, Conroy compels and repels in equal measure. We can see the kind, intelligent creative young man trapped inside his schizophrenia, and we see the paranoid, fearful, potentially dangerous person the disease has turned him into – often in the same scene, and sometimes within the same line reading. Conroy brings impressive physicality to the role, capering about the stage and scrawling on the white walls and floors, the increasingly wild and numerous scrawls become a literal representation of how his condition both crowds his own mind and disrupts the ordered lives of his family.
In counterpoint, Garner’s Anne is a woman who is increasingly appalled at how her powerful intellect and clear compassion are not enough in the face of Jonathan’s worsening symptoms. A woman who cherishes complete control over her life, Anne is presented as someone with a quiet terror of chaos. An anecdote detailing how she was evacuated from Malaya as a child during World War II and feared her ship would be torpedoed before finding safe harbor is a telling detail, and her helplessness in that scenario is mirrored by her helplessness when dealing with her son. Garner’s performance is a subtle one, masterfully letting us see how close Anne is to letting her self-control slip, and how horrified she is that people might perceive that. What really impresses is how both the script and Garner allow Anne to be flawed; her sheer frustration is palpable, and when it spills over we can readily apprehend how much effort has gone into holding back that flood.
The story unfolds in a staccato rhythm: just event after event, incident after incident, outburst after outburst, with Anne filling us in on dates, locations, and events outside the immediate sphere. Even at two hours plus intermission, the play feels stuffed to the gills, and it’s hard to say whether this is a fault in adaptation – simply trying to include too much – or a deliberate tactic to evoke the constant strain of trying to live with and treat Jonathan’s disease. It’s exhausting, and by the time the play reaches its tragic climax, it’s a rare audience member who has any emotional defences left.
Tell Me I’m Here is a bold work, tackling difficult subject matter with empathy and insight. It’s by no stretch an easy watch, but those who can endure being put through the emotional wringer will be richly rewarded.