The debilitating effects of grief are laid bare in Bruce Norris's Purple Heart. First performed at the Steppenwolf Theatre in 2002, Christopher Haydon directs the UK premiere in which the award-winning playwright unpicks the rawest of human emotions.
In a town in the Midwest in 1972, Carla (Amelia Lowdell) is mourning the death of her husband, who was killed in the Vietnam war. Her son Thor (Oliver Coopersmith) bounces onto the set which is comprised of a small living room, replete with the textiles and furniture that defined the era. Wearing over-sized aviator sunglasses, he plucks his pyjama clad mother from her slumber. Mother and son are interrupted by Carla's fussy, questioning mother-in- law Grace (Linda Broughton), who aside from counting tampons, spends her time cajoling Carla and Thor into a more ordered, sedate existence. Marred by loss, all three members clash as they journey through the passage of grief. The arrival of another soldier, Purdy, acts as the catalyst to conversations around morality, pain and some destructive revelations.
Trevor White delivers a striking performance as Purdy. His entrance squares off the cast, adding a much needed dimension to a somewhat sluggish opening.
Norris's ability to craft dialogue is clear. He artfully slices his way through the script with humour and wit, releasing neat lines which temporarily rupture the tension; a defining mark of his more recent work, Clybourne Park. His feat in Purple Heart lies in elucidating the complexities of loss and all consuming effects of grief. Despite being in an abusive relationship, Carla embodies every stage of grief; her anguish rippling out to her son, who mimics his mother’s behaviours and emotions through his mischievous antics. Norris also blurs the line between help and hindrance as Carla resents the ‘vultures’ who deliver casseroles as well as Grace’s presence.
Written in the period after September 11, the play leans heavily on the destruction imparted on families, rather than the weightier issues surrounding war. Unfortunately, the production isn’t has self assured or affecting as one would hope from the subject matter. Purple Heart doesn’t so much bruise, as tap the heart.