What would you do to make sure your children don’t suffer?
How far would you go for your family? How far would you go to ensure your child doesn’t feel like they are on its own?
These are just some of the questions raised in Peter Goldsworthy’s novella Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam, a heartbreaking story of love and loss first published in 1993.
More than 25 years later, it raises those same questions for theatergoers in a stage adaptation by writer and actor Steve Rodgers.
The story is focused on a middle-class Adelaide family: parents Richard and Linda Pollard, and their teenaged children, Ben and Emma.
“The play is about the love of a couple that builds into a family of four,” Rodgers explains. “They set about building a beautiful life but they’re chasing a kind of utopian existence. They start to push away their in-laws without realising it. They get rid of the TV to protect the kids from all the bad things in the outside world. But then the youngest child, Emma, gets sick.”
The illness is incurable. The child will die. But the Pollards aren’t prepared to let death break the bonds of family.
“This family’s solution is radical,” says Rodgers. “They want to make sure their child doesn’t die alone, so one parent decides to die with her. It’s a really confusing thing for an audience because there is so much love in the story, but what they do is unacceptable. It is extraordinary. It is horrible.
“As an audience member you are faced with this dilemma where the law says this can’t happen. But if you are a parent there is something in your heart that says I kind of get why this is happening.”
The play is told in flashback through the eyes of Ben, now 18.
“I think Goldsworthy is interested in what happens for families who are faced with death but who are non-religious and don’t believe in an afterlife,” Rodgers says. “He is looking at the interplay between the rational world and an irrational love.”
Rodger’s play was awarded the inaugural Lysicrates Prize in 2015, judged the best of the finalists by a live audience viewing scenes from the uncompleted play. The finished article received its world premiere in a National Theatre of Parramatta production directed by Darren Yap. That production is now revived as part of Belvoir’s 2020 season.
Liam Nunan is Ben. Emma Jackson and Matthew Whittet play the parents. Grace Truman plays Emma.
“It took quite some time to cast the play, mainly because we had to get Emma right first,” says Yap.
“Some people believed it would be too tough for an audience to see a young girl play the role, but Steve and I knew it was vital to have a real teenager as the heart of the play. Then Grace came in one day and I knew she would be perfect. She has been dealing with the recent loss of her own dad. She understands death and this makes it real for us and the play.”
Grace lost her father, screenwriter Jeff Truman, when she was 10. He died suddenly one morning of a brain stem bleed. To honour his memory, her mother, filmmaker Julie Money created Amazing Grace, an award-winning web series starring Grace and actor Ben Wood as her father, to whom she talks as though he is still alive.
“Her understanding of grief and death is extraordinary,” Rodgers says. “I’ve read The Year of Magical Thinking and other books about grief, and I’ve lost a couple of people close to me, but her experience is hot and recent. The nature of the grief in this story is quite extreme but this young actress seems to have a handle on it, which is great for the show.”
While the subject is dark, Rodgers says he’s been careful to allow in some light.
“There is a lot of fun in the story. I’ve tried to show the family as loving and playful before the tragedy comes. We see them singing together, playing games, reading, working through ordinary family stuff like making sure the kids brush their teeth.”
Yap expects audiences will feel deeply conflicted by what they observe.
“It’s a very difficult play to witness: seeing the choices the parents make for their child will divide people.”
Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam plays Belvoir from February 6.