By Adam Bock. White Box Theatre. Directed by Kim Hardwick. Seymour Centre, NSW. 21 May – 11 June, 2022
Reviewed : 25 May, 2022*
Adam Bock is a Canadian playwright working in America. Before the Meeting is one of his most recent plays. First performed in 2019 at the Williamstown Festival in the United States, it is set in the basement of St Stephen’s church, where a branch of Alcoholics Anonymous meets regularly. Bock’s characters come together beforehand to make the coffee and ensure the chairs in the meeting room next door are set up. Gail is in charge. She’s a bit bossy but caring. Nicole is young, pregnant and collects jokes about addicts. Ron is older, a hypochondriac who agitates about the arrangement of the chairs. Tim is a ‘newbie’. He’s shy, edgy and unsure.
Bock creates characters that you feel you might have met before. Kim Hardwick makes sure you won’t forget them. She is an astute and empathetic director who, with her cast, finds all the fears, frailties and moments of strength that Bock has given these characters. They are vulnerable but here, together, before the meeting, they find a vestige of hope.
Jan Phegan plays Gail. It’s not an easy role. Along with her addiction – and because of it – Gail carries a weighty load of personal guilt. She tries to assuage the effect of this in her management of the “coffee committee”. She is a caring friend and mentor to Nicole. She tolerates most of Ron’s complaints, though not his obsession with the chairs! But it’s obvious she’s constantly uneasy.
Phegan depicts all of this in a performance that is convincingly real. She rarely leaves the stage, yet she sustains the taut edginess of someone who is keeping personal demons almost under control. It is not until a very long monologue, some time into the play, that those demons are revealed. Phegan – and Hardwick – handle that explicit revelation extremely well. Carefully directed timing, tiny pauses, strained facial control, stillness broken by moments of agitation give truth to a confession of guilt that is quite confronting, but doesn’t prepare the audience for the vicious bitterness of her daughter, Angela, in a scene that follows.
Ariadne Sgouros bursts onto the stage as Angela, angry, frustrated, determined that Gail will never meet her granddaughter. Hardwick makes that one short scene memorable. The rage she allows Sgouros to instill into her diatribe is loud and brutal, exposing the awful damage Gail’s addiction wrought on her family. It is a challenging scene and Hardwick allows the pace to quicken, the voices to rise, the tension almost to snap.
Alex Malone, as Nicole, watches them, helpless. Shock and compassion flit across her face as she sees the woman she has leant on so painfully exposed. Nicole spends many moments of the play watching – and Malone is good at ensuring those moments reveal Nicole’s intuitiveness and growing strength of determination. “He let me fall,” she repeats, explaining how her partner’s lack of care led to her miscarriage, and emphasisng her resolve to remove herself from a such a fraught relationship.
Whilst Nicole’s ‘addict’ jokes pepper the early moments of the play, Ron brings the teasing humour that highlights Gail’s tenseness. Tim McGarry makes the most of this playful mocking. The Ron he plays is loose, provocative, energetically dancing around the stage, gauging Gail’s response as he moves towards the chairs. He too has the watchful eyes of the addict – wary, quick to react to reproach, but protective of those about whom he cares.
Tim Walker plays Tim. He finds the wariness in this young man, his cautious confusion. But Gail is used to making reluctant newcomers feel at home, Ron is happy to have someone new to entertain – and Nicole is attracted to his hesitancy. Tim soon thaws and becomes part of the “coffee committee”, but Walker never lets him completely relax until his angry reaction to breaking his ‘pledge’.
Scene changes in this production are as carefully choreographed as the action. The stage manager is almost ghostly as she glides across the stage, handing a change of jacket to one character, taking a prop from the hand of another as she leaves. In character, the actors freeze, allowing just a moment longer before they move into new light and another day
Bock’s characters are carefully conceived, their problems cleverly revealed, their relationships skilfully manipulated. They need understanding and compassion to be brought to life, and Hardwick and her cast are doing so most effectively.