She might sound more like a New Yorker (she now lives there, with her 11-year-old son), but Fredericton, New Brunswick-born Alana Ruben Free earned her last name as a poet. Don't ask me how, but it stuck and applies aptly to the effect this, the first of a trilogy of related works, has on the viewer.
Beginner At Life might be predicated by Alana's deeply personal experience of anorexia, but it's also based on her deeply personal experience of life at large and, to invoke a truism, in being deeply personal it proves almost absolutely universal; there are points of convergence for many of our lives; even those of us who are merely male.
It's not the first time Alana or her play have been seen in Sydney: both were here, enjoying a short season, going on two years ago. This season is even shorter with just two performances; not by Alana, who has starred in her own work elsewhere, but by Donna Brooks, an exceedingly committed, passionate and polished actor: a full hour's non-stop performance was word-perfect and not a beat was missed. And she can turn on tears with such conviction I felt sorely tempted, duty-bound by chivalry, to spring from my front-row seat and give her a hug. She also has a penchant for making direct, piercing eye contact, which ensures (nay, demands) one's attention and a confronting intimacy. it's also extraordinary that she can take on the writer's journey so consummately one is seduced into believing it's her own. We shouldn't be surprised: she's a highly-accomplished professional, whether one looks to stage or screen (small or large).
Publicity has described the play as 'an intensely intimate monologue about a woman's discovery of her own body'. That it is. And, for some, it's likely to prove quite a confronting one, with prolonged, unflinchingly frank discussions of, among much else, virginity and masturbation.
It's also very much an intensely Jewish monologue, but not in any sense that alienates a non-Jewish audience. Nonetheless, there's much depth and enrichment insofar as the subtle inflections Free brings to sublime spiritual and philosophical concepts. For example, the idea that every baby is incarnated perfectly, with in utero, all-encompassing knowledge, delivered by an angel; a complete set of Brittanicas, as it were, swiped by another angel, who renders each of us a clean, innocent slate, upon emergence from the warm & wise womb. All cosmic practical jokes aside, it's a beautiful notion, and one that will be familiar to many Jews.
Eden may be her name in the play, but it's worth looking at the amazingly zealous and energetic woman behind the character; that is Ms. Free herself, who, by dint of this work, will certainly have liberated many from the yoke of anorexia, dysfunctional marriage and crushing family relationships.
The play was, most recently, performed at Times Square Arts Center, New York, no less, having also been produced in Toronto (with Alana as Eden), Rome & Tel Aviv. It incorporates a number of the monologues for which Alana has become somewhat famous. Quite a departure for an Ivy League business and Jewish studies grad; not to mention Rhodes Scholar finalist.
She starts with the oppressive spectre of growing-up small and quiet, prefiguring her almost inevitable spiral into the disappearing act known as anorexia. This, thanks to the shadows cast by the Holocaust, which still pervades the psyches of children and even grandchildren of survivors. In this sense, Hitler's ambition hasn't yet been arrested. But even before this, she reflects on her breach birth and determination to land squarely on her feet, thwarted by doctors. It's an incisive metaphor for the controlling effects of socialisation on the unadulterated spirit of the child.
Beginner At Life could all too easily lapse into a tediously didactic treatise on anorexia, but Free's freewheeling script never allows that to happen, since it's always firmly focused on engaging the viewer's emotional and other experience through a candid expose of her own.
Above all, Beginner At Life reminds us none of us come equipped to deal with life events. We don't graduate from the womb with Honours in Life and how to live it. For each and everyone, it's on-the-job training; an apprenticeship; trial by fire. It also reminds us of the level of courage required to survive, let alone surmount and triumph over, much of what fate, Elohim, or whatever one choose to believe, throws in our path. Even the yellow brick road is fraught with black holes, just as we are. Fortunately, every once in a while, a Beginner At Life comes along to fill a few of 'em. An Alana Ruben Free. And a Donna Brooks. This is transformational, transcendent, inspirational, insightful, challenging, uplifting theatre. Life's dark passages are illuminated by a rude, incorrigible determination to break through the bounds of merely conventional wisdom, to find and stand in one's own truth. Come to think of it, courage doesn't even begin to cover it.
You'll be reconnected, at least for an hour, to all that's really important. If you're not, consult a GP; rabbi; friend; relative; somebody! It puts me in mind of Bob Dylan: if we're not busy being born, we're busy dying. Alana Ruben Free had to almost die to be reborn. Let's hope the rest of us don't leave it that long. The day after celebrating the Anzac spirit, it seems oddly appropriate we should celebrate the more universal human one; the invisible umbilical cord that connects us all. As one of Free's own inspirations, Jungian Dr Marion Woodman, puts it 'this excellent show offers new insights into the anguish of anorexia; it resonated as truth within my body'.
The no-cost bonus is the post-theatrical q & a. Melinda Hutchings, author of How To Recover From Anorexia will be present, along, most probably other representatives from The Butterfly Foundation and other networks that can help.
But, again, don't be mistaken, don't be misled: just as you don't have to be Jewish to enjoy Levy's famous rye bread, you don't have to be Jewish, or anorexic, to get some take-home payoff from this truly wonderful piece of theatre, and generous slice of real life.
Beginner At Life
written and directed by Alana Ruben
Monday 26 April and Monday 3 May | Newtown Theatre, Cnr King and Brays Streets
Sunday 9 May | Bondi Pavilion Theatre, Queen Elizabeth Drive Bondi Beach
Bookings: MCA Ticketing 1300 306 776 | www.mca-tix.com.au