The Paradise Circus

James Purdy
Playground Theatre

Tim Woodward as Arthur Rawlings and Sophie Ward as Alda Pennington Credit: Scott Rylander
Tim Woodward as Arthur Rawlings Credit: Scott Rylander
Sam Coulson as Joel Rawlings and Mark Aiken as Dr Hallam Credit: Scott Rylander
Joshua Ward as Gregory Rawlings Credit: Scott Rylander
Sophie Ward as Alda Pennington and Debra Penny as Minnie Cruikshank Credit: Scott Rylander

Nine years after James Purdy’s death, this play, written in 1991 (and published in 2009), here gets its world première. It’s a brave undertaking for, though Gore Vidal called him “an authentic American genius”, his work is now not widely known.

Closely involved with the Chicago jazz world and American magic realist painters, their influence can be seen in this work. There are similarities with the Latin American magical realists and Tennessee Williams’s Camino Real in the way that The Paradise Circus mixes realism with fantasy elements in a story that involves witch doctor wisdom and an unloving father selling his sons to a circus.

The scene is the mid-West just after the First World War and miserly Arthur Rawlings idolises the memory of his eldest son, Rainforth, killed in the conflict. He was the golden boy, a star athlete successively promoted in the service, winner of a Distinguished Service Medal but was killed the day after being made a Captain.

His two younger brothers don’t come up to dad’s standards. They didn’t finish school and now spend their time repairing and painting fairground roundabout horses. Joel and Gregory do it skilfully but to him that means nothing, he goes on about Rainforth and shows them no affection. Lacking paternal love, they bond strongly as brothers.

A writer who wants to put Rainforth in a book about American heroes asks the boys about him but they say talk to father. Then the ringmaster of a travelling circus turns up and offers to give them jobs. They turn him down, but he propositions their father and offers to buy the boys for $10,000. Obeying Rawlings, they go with ringmaster Giuseppe Onofrio, become bareback riders, put on muscle.

For three years, their father hears nothing from them. He feels guilty, admits to the doctor who acts as his conscience “I should have pretended I loved them. It is easy to love the dead: the living present us with all their weaknesses.”

Doc tells him the boys would have loved him a thousand times more then his soldier son, if only he had let them. More years pass and he wants them home. But how? Ageing and ill, he goes to witch woman Alda Pennington to find out.

Five years after joining the circus (fed and housed but unpaid), Joel and Greg decide to desert it. “I want to be a man,” says Greg, “not a toy for an audience to applaud.” They decide that that money should be theirs. But getting it isn’t that simple. Onofrio wants it back and that blood money, as witch Alda calls it, isn’t there now.

Perhaps the outcome is predictable in a play that is about the need to give love and show love, but Purdy dresses up his story as a parable. His title already suggests that there will be a lot of symbolism going on but his circus and witchcraft seem more like exotic decorations to a simple story than carrying great meaning. Paradise that isn’t, a doctor who represents the moral ground, a witch woman forcing a choice between love and money: it is all a bit simplistic with little character development, though this cast give them strong personalities and make them much more than stereotypes.

Cold-hearted Rawlings is a man who has rejected feelings: pride or disgust are his only emotions. When there is a sign that is changing and he complains that his returned sons are stonehearted, he’s reminded that that’s how he raised them. Yet Tim Woodward’s performance still manages to elicit our sympathy. Joshua Ward and Sam Coulson give Greg and Joel an Eden-like innocence, a naïve acceptance—though if they are were seen in their circus life that wouldn’t seem possible.

We learn nothing about Dr Hallam but Mark Aiken makes him seem human and humane while Sophie Ward gives Alda sharp authority and an edge of female retribution towards menfolk.

Giuseppe Onofrio is a rather Mephistolean manipulator and Peter Tate in his ringmaster’s red coat has an appropriate theatrical richness without overdoing the demon. It fits well in a production that desgner Celia Trono stages in-the-round on a wooden platform recalling a carousel.

Director Anthony Biggs uses music (led by Darren Berry) to frame the play and sometimes between scenes which move smoothly around the space. Despite the script’s mix of real and fantastical, there is no over-dramatisation, performances follow a natural flow that takes attention away from the artifice of its construction. But Purdy has a very personal voice and perhaps it needs a more conscious theatricality to make it heard more loudly.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton