By James McManus. Crisscross Productions. Director Charlie Vaux. KXT on Broadway. 24 March – 8 April, 2023
Reviewed : March 30, 2023*
Many industrial centres in the United States floundered at the end of the 20th century. In Pittsburgh, for example, after the steelworks closed in 1978, 300,000 people lost their jobs. By 2021 the U.S. Census Bureau declared that one in five citizens – over 56,000 people – in that once thriving city lived in poverty.
Playwright James McManus grew up in a dying steel mill town near Pittsburgh. In Cherry Smoke he paints a vivid picture of what can happen when families are thrown into that sort of despair and hopelessness. Of the effect it has upon their children, left to fend for themselves. Of their scramble to find refuge, security, dignity … even love.
Cherry Smoke is a tough play, but one that finds beauty and a sort of splendour in the strength and tenacity of its characters. McManus has an uncanny ability to create characters who grow and mature; who develop tenuous relationships that give them courage, and hope, and faith.
Charlie Vaux directs this play on the intimate, stage of the new KXT theatre, using the close proximity of the audience to encase the action and giving designer Soham Apte the opportunity to create the shadowy, decaying outskirts of a dying city. A place that confines and yet sequesters; a place of refuge or sanctuary … perhaps a place to dream.
It’s a place where Cherry (Meg Hyeronimus), alone and homeless, has survived on the bank of a river, fending for herself. A place where she first sees Fish (Tom Dawson), edgy, tense, fighting to please an absent, abusive father. Where she meets his more stable, thoughtful brother Duffy (Fraser Cane) and his gentle, reticent girlfriend Bug (Alice Birbara).
cManus takes them backwards and forward in time, explaining their present through scenes from their past and carefully developing their characters without losing the continuity of their stories – or the frailties of their developing relationships. Skilful use of language defines the age of the characters clearly. Faltering, tentative dialogue in childhood scenes contrasts with the more confident, circumspect language as they mature and relate more intimately.
Charlie Vaux pays homage to the playwright’s skill in very tight and carefully judged direction. Conflict and tension tie together both time and characters in the play, and Vaux uses those elements to drive the action. Conflict draws the characters to each other originally, giving them a strange sort of bond. Conflict also comes between at times, creating a tension that reaches from them into to the audience.
Hyeronimus establishes that tension in the feisty but anxious Cherry, a tension that she never really loses. As the young Cherry she is watchful, alert, moving cautiously with nervy awareness of the inherent danger of her lonely, riverbank existence. She sustains that caution as she becomes the older, slightly more secure Cherry, waiting patiently for Fish, the boy she fell in love with as a child. Hyeronimus uses movements and gestures that are tightly controlled, carefully metred; eyes that stare apprehensively, almost scarily at times, but strangely soften when Fish is there, filling the space she keeps for him.
Tom Dawson’s Fish does not always fill that space happily. Driven by a boxer’s urge to keep moving, he is jumpy, skittish, hard to hold down despite Cherry’s devotion and his growing dependence on her loyal constancy. Dawson’s Tom sustains a hard, aggressive energy – fuelled by failure and lost battles with the law – but he also finds a softness as he grows to accept his attraction to Cherry and reaches beyond his hard childhood to try and find the man Cherry sees in him – and the man his brother Duffy hopes he can become.
The contrast between Tom and Duffy is played with calm strength and humour by Fraser Cane. Cane has a quiet but distinctive stage presence which he uses to show Duffy’s steadfastness and dependability, whether in his loyalty to Tom – or his love for Bug, as a youngster meeting her tentatively, or in the strong, tender relationship that develops as they mature.
Alice Birbara’s Bug is a gentle presence that hovers in the tawdry atmosphere of the dying town, bring a sweetness that inspires both Duffy and Cherry – and even reaches out to Tom. Birbara is a consummate performer, who uses restrained gesture and movement to infuse her young Bug with shy tenderness; and her older Bug with understanding and compassion for others despite an emptiness that she finds it hard to suppress.
Each of these performers takes their characters, both vocally and physically, from youthful past to more pressured, adult present. The transitions are clear and distinct, based on Vaux’s precise but sensitive direction. Each scene change has been carefully considered and staged, enhanced by lighting and sound effectively perceived by Jasmin Borsovszky and Johnny Yang.
This play is harrowing at times, but the characters get into your heart and stay with you as they show that love can be found even in places where hope seems to have been abandoned.
With Cherry Smoke, Charlie Vaux and his cast are giving Crisscross Productions a strong introduction to the Sydney theatre scene – and are reaffirming KXT’s continuing support and faith in indie companies in this new, exciting theatre space on Broadway.