Adapted by Steve Rodgers from Peter Goldsworthy’s 1993 novella of the same name, Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam deftly asks its audience to consider the limits of love, as revealed in the extraordinary actions of devoted parents.
Linda (Emma Jackson) and Rick (Matthew Whittet) are a middle-class couple living a modest suburban existence. They have two children, Ben (Liam Nunan) and Emma (Grace Truman).
It seems an idyllic existence and Linda and Rick are protective of it. Little by little, without realising it perhaps, they weave a loving cocoon for themselves. Their determination to insulate Ben and Emma from the trauma in the world sees the television set dispatched to the nature strip.
But trauma comes knocking, regardless. Emma – “Wol” to her intimates – is diagnosed with leukaemia.
Linda and Rick devote themselves to caring for their daughter. There is nothing they won’t do for her. But as Wol’s illness progresses, we come to understand that there are no lengths to which her mum and dad will not go.
This production, directed by Darren Yap, premiered in Parramatta in 2018 and the cast remains the same, with Whittet taking over the role originated by Justin Smith. As you would expect, it is a thoroughly run-in show.
Whittet and Jackson are excellent from the get-go as Rodgers affectionately sketches their relationship and the development of their idiosyncratic sense of family and parental responsibility. Truman is remarkably good as Wol. Nunan deftly bridges the before and after, playing Ben as a boy and as a haunted 18-year-old trying to come to terms with everything he has experienced.
Valerie Bader and Mark Lee offer warm support, playing Linda’s parents, Wol’s doctor and a local priest.
Just 80 minutes long, this is emotionally potent theatre but it could be more so. Brisk pacing counters any drift toward sentimentality but there isn’t a lot of time to register the impact of decisions made. Nor are we able to develop an understanding of, and empathy for, characters making decisions that could generate passionate debate among an audience were they more fully explored.