A tender reckoning with right and wrong

13 August 2021

While Savage Grace serves a vital role in transmitting queer elders’ stories to the next generation, Patrick Gunasekera says that this incisive work is a gift to audiences from all walks of life.

Savage Grace, Steamworks Arts ·
Rehearsal Room 1, State Theatre Centre of WA, 11 August 2021 ·

Written by Alana Valentine and directed by Sally Richardson with Joe Paradise Lui, Savage Grace follows the unlikely relationship of a doctor and an ethicist, weighing their professional defences against their personal biases about assisted dying, at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

In celebration of 21 rich years of theatre-making, this poignant play is being re-staged by Steamworks Arts. The local multi-disciplinary performance company made its debut with the work back in 2001 and two decades later, Savage Grace remains a timely and intimate study of human connection and contradiction, with especially relevant themes for audiences today.

The play’s characters are Dr Tex Cladakis, a guarded HIV specialist unsettled by his legal responsibilities, with unwavering conviction and empathy for the wishes of his dying patients — and Dr Robert Bavaro, a whimsical bioethics professor of stark reason and libertarian faith, assigned to coach the young doctor on moral grounds against euthanasia.

The two-hander is brilliantly performed by returning 2001 cast members in their original roles; actors Gibson Nolte (Tex) and Humphrey Bower (Robert) are a joy to observe in this supple interplay of stubbornness, compassion, stress and love. Their vibrant embodiment and discerning chemistry are a blessing to see in this staging of a mature queer story.

Gibson Nolte and Humphrey Bower are a joy to observe in ‘Savage Grace’. Photo: Daniel Grant

Revised for 2021 by Valentine, this production starts where the story now ends: at the onset of COVID-19, with the characters briefly reunited at a Zoom meeting of international health advisors. This wistful opening suddenly jumps back 20 years to the characters’ first meeting, in which they are at loggerheads. It’s a leap I initially found difficult to adjust to; the work is presented in a studio setting and the emotional range seemed almost too grand for the compressed performance space.

But this is where Savage Grace really shines: Valentine chooses to stage only the relationship between these two men, and their conflicting viewpoints are revealed through dynamic responsiveness to each other. Compelled by longing and curiosity, they clash over the most human parts of themselves, but with deep tolerance. Supported by subtle yet sophisticated lighting (Lui) and sound (Cat Hope), their negotiations of principles and proximity grow ever more nuanced within the confined space.

It’s a play that beautifully interrogates euthanasia, religion, medicine and agency through the medium of love — a timeless tradition of HIV/AIDS storytelling.

I was born in 1999, and plays like Savage Grace are vital transmitters of our elders’ stories for younger queer generations. But this play can resonate with everyone for its incisive contemplation of how dearly human we are beneath the masks we wear for public’s sake.

Savage Grace doesn’t reveal anything surprising about the medical system. In gently unravelling the subjective experiences of a morally conflicted doctor at work, however, it allows all of us to recognise the conflicts we may face in our own working lives. This carefully negotiated permission to honour the potential discord between one’s professional and personal responsibilities is given quietly and courageously, and warbles with tender humility throughout the play.

The play also offers a refreshingly candid and compassionate proximity to discussing death. Created by the relatively small performance space, the intimacy between audience and performers moved me to my core, knowing that, though all of us have a relationship with death, it is rarely talked about. I left the theatre quietly abuzz in deep contemplation, grateful for this opportunity.

This anniversary production has a very limited run and has sold out quickly. But should Savage Grace see an encore season – and I sincerely hope that it does – I’d encourage you to attend as this show is a gift to audiences from all walks of life.

In a society where some ideas cannot be publicly explored but through the patient permission of the stage, Savage Grace reminds us why we all need theatre.

Savage Grace continues at the State Theatre Centre of WA until 14 August 2021.

Pictured top are Humphrey Bower and Gibson Nolte in ‘Savage Grace’. Photo: Daniel Grant

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Author —
Patrick Gunasekera

Patrick Gunasekera (he/him) is an emerging writer, performer and dramatist based in Whadjuk Noongar boodjar. After reading a poorly-written review of a show by disabled artists, he went into arts journalism to improve criticism and media representation of marginalised cultural work. He really loves monkey bars, but not being judged for playing on them.

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