Before the Meeting, Seymour Centre (NSW)
Reviewed by Vaanie Krishnan
Cleverly structured over a series of moments before an Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meeting, Before the Meeting by American playwright Adam Bock explores the importance of connection and the way life happens in the in-between.
We meet Gail (Jane Phegan) and the long-time members of her AA group (lovingly called the Coffee Committee) as they set up for their meeting. Everyday, the routine is the same: Nicole (Alex Malone) arranges the chairs, Gail makes the coffee, Ron (Tim McGarry) brings cookies. Rather than lurching forward, Before the Meeting glacially unfolds, utilising the rhythm and familiarity of the meeting routine to pull the audience along as silent observers.
The subtlety of these scenes is in stark contrast to a hearty, 20-minute centrepiece that comes two-thirds into the show. Bathed in one simple spotlight, Jane Phegan delivers the performance of her life, unpacking Gail’s AA origin story; all of the guilt, trauma, and shame she carries is expertly poured onto the theatre floor from the solitude of a single chair. The monologue itself is long and intense (a signature of Bock) but within the context of the broader play it does well to articulate the relentlessness and complexity of addiction, showing both its cyclical nature and its interdependence with anxiety, isolation, and trauma.
Alex Malone delivers a nuanced performance as the pregnant Nicole, exploring blame, shame, dependence, and heartbreak with dignity. Malone demonstrates mastery in physical movement, expressing an inner monologue through the shift of her eyes, the placement of her hand, the slouch of her shoulders. Tim Walker is equally physical in his portrayal of a nervous first-timer, eager not to fail. Tim McGarry masterfully provides lightness and laughter to an otherwise tense text. The glacial pace of the show is halted with the introduction of Angela (Ariadne Sgouros), who has perhaps the most challenging role as Gail’s adult daughter. Through an unnecessary tirade of unconvincing rage, Gail’s misgivings are laid bare and the audience is left with bated-breath to see if her friends will rally around her, or leave her to fall.
The intimacy the production team creates in the Reginald Theatre is remarkable. Lighting by Jasmin Borsovszky positions a murky, old church basement in a soft glow, and direction by Kim Hardwick is inclusive of the audience, with actors often looking past them or running behind the bandstand to deliver their dialogue. In a moment of guilt, I put my glass of red wine away as if I were breaking the rules of the world they’d created. Compositions by Chrysoulla Markoulli are simple and purposeful, serving to enhance the emotion of the performances and never contradicted them.
An antithesis to isolation, Before the Meeting is realistic about addiction, but it idealises twelve-step programs like AA. AA is deeply rooted in religion, a complexity the play does not explore, and has low demonstrated success rates (8-12%). In idealising it, the play glosses over some hard truths about alcoholism. Namely, that recovery is rare and is often a product of privilege rather than any program or intervention. Hardwicks’s choice to keep the actors in American accents feels like a lost opportunity to playback the toxicity of drinking culture to Australian audiences. In 2019, there were 1,317 alcohol-induced deaths registered in Australia and we are no closer to understanding how to avoid them, what we do know, is that we can’t do it without each other.
Before the Meeting plays at the Seymour Centre from 21sy May- 11th June 2022. Tickets can be booked through the Seymour Centre website.