He may be dead – fallen (or pushed) from the escarpment at the edge of the remote property – but Alec Hobbes, maths genius turned freely excreting Alzheimer’s sufferer, still has the women involved in his life spinning from his machinations in Alma de Groen’s probing 2002 play Wicked Sisters, which returns to Griffin Theatre Company (which premiered it) in a new production directed by Nadia Tess.

Which isn’t to say the women are incapable of forming conclusions of their own or snubbing his formulas. Unlike the “critters” – the AI motes of data that continue to breed, compete and die in Hobbes’ evolution simulation computer algorithm – the interplay between these middle-aged women isn’t quite so brutishly simple, nor so completely ruled by a single tyrannical force. Between humans, logical principles are just as slippery as ethical ones, and the either/or binary is fraught.

Vanessa Downing and Di Adams in Wicked Sisters. Photo © Brett Boardman

The four women of the play have come together for a weekend at the widow Meridee’s house, not long after Hobbes’ death. Bougie friends Lydia and Judith expect that they will drink wine, eat cheese and dispense consolations: the entitlement and duty of old acquaintances. Meridee (Vanessa Downing) has other things in mind – though she keeps them to herself for a while. A diminutive little figure with a querulous pout, tiny balled fists and wildly swinging arms, she is in many ways pathetic – a far remove from the feminist icons who have scorched our stages of late. Having devoted a lifetime of thankless servitude to a selfish savant, when Alec began showing warmth towards her near the end, she believed it to be real love released (at last) from a softening, senile mind.

“Alzheimer’s suffers can be strangely affectionate,” Meridee says. “He was more … intimate … with me than he’d ever been.” When this man who “never made [her] a cup of coffee” in all their years of marriage reached out one morning to clasp her hand, she thought “Why wasn’t it always like this?”

What was occurring, however, was not a symptom of sentimentality. It was a treacherous displacement. With a single word, Alec nullified his wife and all her lifetime’s acts of love that had begged to be returned.

This is Meridee’s reason for the weekend: to force a reckoning.

Di Adams, Deborah Galanos and Vanessa Downing. Photo © Brett Boardman

Perhaps it is also this impulse that causes Meridee to open her door to her husband’s old colleague Hester (played with sardonic aloofness by Di Adams), a wearily proud feminist whom the patriarchal institutions of science have long made obsolete and subsequently poor. Hester has her own ransom to extract. But not before she has done to the three women what we all crave and fear: understand them.

As the double-crossings and deceits emerge, Hobbes’ “critters” wage their own ceaseless war above, projected in an eerie display on the glass walls of Tobhiyah Stone Feller’s set. The effect is degrading, savage and cold. Hobbes, of course, alludes to the 17th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who believed that without the social mores regulating behaviour, humans would revert to nasty brutes competing for limited resources.

Yet, for all their self-interested proclivities – stealing purses, husbands, lives – these women are not critters (what a horribly belittling word). What De Groen’s play tells us is that ‘survival’ can mean many things, and it does not exclude empathy. We have an awareness of time and an imagination. We can predict the hurt our actions could inflict. Can we live with it?

Deborah Galanos, Di Adams, Vanessa Downing and Hannah Waterman in Wicked Sisters. Photo © Brett Boardman

In this new era, in which so much of art exalts fierce unapologetic women, it is difficult to see female characters so shrunken about their sorry middle-aged lot. Up until Hobbes’ death, none except Hester seem to have been so bold as to make their own choices free of shame or self-protection. Self-loathing PR agent Judith (Hannah Waterman) literally moved to another city after her menstruating body betrayed her. Real estate agent Lydia endured a loveless marriage for decades before her husband left her for a 23-year-old: her vengeance is that she’s dating a 30-year-old with a “beautiful dick”. They are unbearably lonely and, as we discover, in a sisterhood that’s corrupt.

This production, directed by Tass, falls somewhat flat. In the program notes, De Groen writes that Wicked Sisters came from a yearning to see “women on stage getting a chance to give voices to ideas, entertainingly and with relish”. Yet in Griffin’s revival of the play – perhaps because its questions and representations are not quite so suited to these times – the cast seems to feel none such relish in performing their roles. You could empathise with their characters, but feel little warmth. Billed as a tragicomedy, the comic element dissolves into a grim and rather lacklustre tragedy.

It seems, then, oddly timed in the Griffin program. When lockdown has created a yearning for stories of love and redemption – and the lead-up to Christmas tightens this ache – Wicked Sisters leaves us contemplating who amongst our closest we can trust. And – for women ageing in a world which still performs on us the goddess to crone flip – what ethical void may swallow us yet.

Griffin Theatre Company’s Wicked Sisters is at the Seymour Centre until December 12


Supported by the City of Sydney

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