It has been nearly a decade since Australian writer Thomas Keneally's novel ``The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith'' (later made into the popular Fred Schepsi film) introduced Australia's interracial problems into American popular culture. Since then, Keneally's work has continued to reach beyond regional confines. His novel ``Schindler's List'' won England's Booker Prize in 1982 and forms the basis for a forthcoming Stephen Spielberg film. Currently, it is Keneally's 1980 drama, ``Bullie's House,'' now having its American premi`ere at the Long Wharf Theatre, which is providing another window on down under.
And another look at aboriginal Australia it is. Based upon an actual incident occurring in Australia's Northern Territory in the late 1940s, ``Bullie's House'' is a somber view of the racial, cultural, and ethnic gaps that persist between Australia's white and aboriginal populations. Unlike the earlier ``Jimmy Blacksmith,'' which probed the malice and violence flaring between the two communities, ``Bullie's House'' traces its tragedy through misunderstanding. The result is no less disturbing for its unintention.
Bullie, the play's protagonist, is the victim of numerous and inexplicable losses. His wife, his lover, and his house are in different and unusual ways taken from him. As an aboriginal resident on a government mission station populated with a resident officer, a missionary, and an anthropologist, Bullie tries to reconcile these losses with his native beliefs as well as the religious and scientific explanations offered by his white neighbors. It is a futile task and one in which nearly every character is wounded in some way. Bullie himself is ultimately murdered by his fellow aborigines for betraying the sacred secrets of the ranga, part of the aboriginal cosmology.
As raw material, the incident is ripe with dramatic potential. But in the hands of Keneally, ``Bullie's House'' does not play as the work of a polished storyteller. Plot -- in this case historical fact -- determines character. And the author compounds this difficulty by substituting predictable posturing for believable dialogue. ``The old ways lead only to madness, real madness,'' exclaims the missionary to Bullie at one point.
Thematically, the work is a knickknack cupboard in which moral and ethical dilemmas are tossed about with little regard for priorities and even less exploration. Marital fidelity, religious faith, and filial loyalty receive passing notice but remain dramatically unrealized. As a result, the play's finale, a ritualized dance in which Bullie's murder is wordlessly executed, functions only on a visual level, frustrating any real emotional response.
Despite the damaging structural flaws, ``Bullie's House'' does operate as a credible vehicle for the acting talents of several Australian and aboriginal actors. Ernie Dingo as Bullie, and Paul Pryor, Justine Saunders, and Tommy Lewis as the neighbors and friends, are all native actors recruited and cast specifically for this production. (Saunders and Lewis appeared in the film version of ``Jimmy Blacksmith,'' with Lewis performing the title role.) Their understated but passionate performances help illuminate an otherwise opaque production. The judicious use of the haunting music of the didgeridoo, a native reed instrument played by musician and political activist Richard Walley (also the assistant director), evokes additional authenticity.
The white actors fare less well with their sketchy and stereotyped roles. Michael Countryman, last seen in the Long Wharf's production of Simon Gray's play ``The Common Pursuit,'' has little to do as Officer Doug McLean other than stomp about in khaki shorts complaining about cost overruns. Ron Frazier as the sensitive but powerless anthropologist is simply a thematic counterpoint. Josef Sommer as the Rev. Hugh Barton has potentially the most interesting role as Bullie's spiritual adviser, friend, and cuckolded competitor. But his anguish trails off in such whining reproaches as ``After all I've done for you.'' Sommer's placid performance borders too much on baffled stoicism rather than anguished inquiry.
Kenneth Frankel, Long Wharf's associate artistic director, has directed ``Bullie's House'' with a spare, arid touch that suits the production sensorially but fosters an excessively Spartan feel. Every scene plays as a staccato bulletin from the cultural front. The sand and cement set by the talented Marjorie Bradley Kellogg is bleakly evocative of the outback. Alternately sun-burnished and star-lit by lighting director Judy Rasmuson, the stage was often so searingly bright the audience nearly had to shade its eyes.
At the Long Wharf's Stage II thru June 9.