Highway of Lost Hearts. By Mary Anne Butler. Directed by Lee Lewis. A Mary Anne Butler and Artback NT production. The Street Theatre. Until Saturday at 7.30pm. Bookings: 62471223.
A woman takes a road trip down across Australia's heart to try to find her own, lost to a friend's accidental death on Sydney Harbour and the accumulation of her own life's traumas. She's on her own except for an old dog and whatever she may meet along the way. And that includes humans, animals and a few forces of nature.
The woman Mot is not young, is no longer married and is travelling south across one of the most difficult continents in the world, intending eventually to see Sydney and the place of her friend's death. Encounters with indigenous people rightly disturb her conscience. So too does the dilemma of what to do with a roo injured by her car.
She deals better with the men on the road, perhaps hopeful of their humanity but always wary of the vulnerability of a lone female traveller.
The script evokes the dangers and beauties of that isolated road that runs down the continent, through deceptively suburban Alice Springs, past Woomera and its recent history as a detention centre, to Port Augusta and an eerie lake of dead souls. Then she turns east toward Sydney and the end of the journey.
Mary Anne Butler gives her own script a performance that works its way gently into an absorbing piece about loss and change, the importance of country and the power of a journey. On a black set on which is a slightly confused map of road markings she begins with the packing and, despite the fixed poetic nature of the script, a gentle spontaneous level of audience interaction.
The sparse set, augmented by the occasional slide or film snippet and some careful sound and lighting is enough to suggest the long road. The old, trundly travel bag with its multiple compartments able to contain more than the clothes of the journey, can also spill out the sand of a finally reached beach.
There's an emotionally authentic feeling to the voice of the character and the sense of that journey that is leavened by a good dose of dark humour. Sometimes it comes from wry self-awareness, sometimes from the sketches of off-kilter encounters with others on the road.
This haunted highway, with its ever present closeness to disaster should there be an accident or a breakdown, is a fine metaphor for the kind of healing progress that Mot is seeking. Anyone who has ever gone on that journey, or a parallel one, will appreciate the sense of place and personal purpose in Highway of Lost Hearts.