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REVIEW: Sweet Phoebe by Michael Gow

Marcus McKenzie & Olivia Monticciolo in Sweet Phoebe
Photo: Teresa Noble photography

Frazer and Helen are a middle-class married couple with A-type personalities who do everything a thousand percent. They are in complete control of their burgeoning design careers and their marriage is solid. They check in with each other, they are supportive and attentive. And they set aside time for sex. Everything in their life is moving like clockwork.

When their friends, who are off to a retreat for a week for couples counselling, ask Frazer and Helen to look after their dog, Phoebe, Helen says yes, to Frazer’s annoyance. But soon enough, Frazer and Helen have bonded over how great their marriage is, how sad they are for their friends – and Phoebe becomes another goal, another routine to tick off their list of daily accomplishments.

Everything is going well until Phoebe gets out and runs away.

Michael Gow’s play is twenty-five years old and is definitely a period piece, which Red Stitch’s new production embraces. Not that it’s embarrassing early 90s clothing, but it does drop the characters into a minimalist set of black marble with a bright red feature arch. The cluster of neon on the corner feels like a leftover piece of the 80s, but that’s what the early 90s was.

Previous productions I have seen have tried to make Frazer and Helen likeable at the start, before Phoebe goes missing – and it’s after that you are left to figure out how long to feel sorry for them. Director Mark Wilson’s take on the text is far darker; he has no sympathy for these people, whose all-consuming passion for work is what makes them unable to look after a dog or each other.

Laura Jean Hawkins’ set is a black void, with cuts of red and sharp edges. This home is cold, austere, uncomfortable. When Frazer brings Helen a vintage “Bless This House” sign, it’s a literal sign of warmth that is only there to be destroyed. Laura Mibus’ lighting design is intuitive and particular; a spot finds Helen’s classic moment of triumph, but colder boxes of light isolate Frazer during his loss of control late in the play.

The performances by Marcus McKenzie and Olivia Monticciolo are so full-on that it’s hard to find any sympathy for them as life spirals out of control. But the further into the story we plow, the more fascinating these portrayals were. And once their trust in each other begins to crack, McKenzie and Monticciolo are stunning. Wilson’s vision for this piece is remarkably clear once all hope seems lost and Frazer & Helen self-destruct.

Overall, the play started to drag late in the piece; starting with such heightened emotion, pushing further and further and further into this suburban heart of darkness became overwhelming. It was exhausting. But for a twenty-five-year-old play that could easily be done as a bland middle-class “missing dog” story, I appreciated Mark Wilson’s insistence in pushing everything to the edge and well over it.

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