It’s no accident that in the taut domestic space of Bruce Norris’ play the clocks are being turned back. First produced in Chicago in 2002, the piece rubs at one of the sorest wounds of recent American history – the Vietnam War – in the aftermath of another that is only just beginning to scab over. Now receiving its UK premiere at the Gate Theatre, it’s impossible not to read this searing acid burn of a play through the lens of conflicts sparked by 9/11, implicitly asking the unsettling question of whether the world is simply caught in a relentless cycle of rewind and replay.
While Vietnam is the scar that Purple Heart concerns itself with, its approach is a glancing one. In a Midwest living room in 1972, a setting realised with gaping spaces at either side that might as well be the holes blasted by loss, Carla is agonisingly caught in the process of grieving for a violent, unfaithful husband. Suffocated by condolences and stuffed with sympathetic casseroles, her strained relationships with attention starved twelve-year-old son Thor and overbearing mother-in-law Grace are shown at breaking point when soldier Purdy breaks unexpectedly into this poisonous space. It’s a classic, almost clichÃ©d dramatic device furnished with freshly sharpened claws, tearing through the fraying fabric of the family’s worn out existence.
Not unlike the mysterious intruder in early Pinter plays, Purdy is a figure half-explained and oddly, indefinably sinister. Trevor White lends this stranger an almost disturbing stillness, an upright, static quality that is physically at odds with Amelia Lowdell’s restless, frenetic, maniacally laughing Carla. As startlingly candid dialogue bounces sharply between the pair, there is a marked rupture to the naturalism of the piece, an almost painful heightening of the situation until it reaches the piercing pitch of Grace’s faulty hearing aid battery. Acerbically funny and flooded with an acute sense of the ridiculous, the believability of the scenario – a visit from a soldier who met Carla in a military hospital and who may or may not have been friends with her late husband – is less important than its grim power to compel.
The world that Christopher Haydon’s production wrenches us into is one of laughs gulped down with horror, of love mashed up with violence and kids enraptured by stories of torture and aggression. It’s important, though, that the worst is never seen and even its spoken references are spare; structured in this way, the Vietnam War is a constant, queasy backdrop, like the patterned yellow wallpaper pasted on the walls of Carla’s suburban prison. Within this retrospective frame, the specific conflict in question, like the desperate relations of these characters, is only symptomatic of a wider, never fully specified sickness.
Intelligently framed, too, is Simon Kenny’s canny design for the small space of the Gate, placing the audience in banks on either side of the family’s dissected living room. This configuration forces us to look quite literally through the play and see ourselves almost mirrored on the other side; a reflection, perhaps, of an ugliness that Norris’ broken characters fail to submerge. It is this penetrating ugliness, despite an occasional heavy-handedness in the approach, that ensures its unrelenting assault pummels audience as much as characters. It may be grimacingly entertaining, but it is never easy to watch.