One of the central messages of Bruce Norris’s brilliant play – written in 2002 and given its UK premiere at the Gate Theatre – is the dehumanising effects of war. He focuses on what this means for those left behind and the often disturbing nature of the grieving process.
It’s 1972, somewhere in the American Midwest. Carla (Amelia Lowdell) is mourning the death of her husband in the Vietnam War and has sunk into alcohol dependency. When not drunk she sleeps off her hangover. Her 12-year-old son, Thor (Oliver Coopersmith), attempts to distract himself and his mother with novelty games and jokes. It’s another way of coping. Carla and her overbearing mother-in-law Grace (Linda Broughton), constantly bicker. We never learn what Grace feels about losing her son.
Then a lone soldier, Purdy (Trevor White) turns up on their doorstep. He is calm and quiet and sits almost deathly still. At first Carla thinks he is there to share memories of her husband but gradually a more sinister reason for his visit is revealed.
Cleverly, Norris gives his anti-war drama a domestic setting and frequently plays with our expectations. Grace is not as insensitive as she seems and Carla is struggling to disentangle ambivalent feelings towards her late husband – whom she loved, but who was also abusive.
PURPLE HEART was originally commissioned by the Chicago-based Steppenwolf Theatre Company known for their actor-centred ensemble work. Norris is clearly a dream writer for actors. The four give excellent performances and Christopher Haydon’s finely judged production draws out the play’s contemporary resonances. Norris writes with real vigour and his frequent plot twists and shifts in tone keep us guessing until the end.
Running at the Gate Theatre until 6 April
Review originally published by Theatreworld