As an actor onstage, Shari Sebbens is a compass: she keeps her character, her fellow actors, and the story oriented towards its truth.
You are never lost with Sebbens. She feels, often, like the connective tissue of the production.
It seems fitting, then, that her directorial debut is here, for Mark Rogers’ award-winning script Superheroes – a play about two souls that have been entirely turned around and can’t seem to find their way out towards the light.
It isn’t an easy task. The play follows two characters living very different lives – Jana (Claire Lovering) in Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Emily (Gemma Bird Matheson) in New South Wales – on a day in which those lives are upended.
Jana is out to buy groceries, but when she’s approached for help by a woman who is a refugee and in crisis, everything changes. Jana’s actions in this moment will forever shape more lives that she can imagine.
Emily, meanwhile, is making a trip from Tempe to Thirroul out of family obligation. It’s her nephew’s birthday, and her sort-of boyfriend Simon won’t text her back. When he arrives in Thirroul, though, it becomes clear that her problems, and her relationships with the people around her, are a lot more complex than that.
There’s a man in Bosnia, too – both he and Simon are played by Aleks Mikic – and as the short play barrels towards its conclusion, the two lives unfold in short bursts, switching back and forth to build suspense.
Superheroes is a prickling, unsettling excavation of personal responsibility and action. It’s a portrait of instinct and trauma, privilege and power, and how these things intersect and interact – how they shape a life. It’s difficult terrain, and with a literal divide in the action – Lovering and Matheson each own one half of a sparse stage – it’s a challenge to stage.
Sebbens, though, is a sure hand that steers the play towards its heart. She unifies.
Rogers’ script is smart and straining towards the profound; at times, it makes contact. Lovering, an actor gifted at honouring our inner anxieties and monstrosities to make them human, fills the difficult Jana with undeniable, entirely recognisable life. Matheson brings a lighter, easier energy until she can’t anymore (her story is not as developed as Jana’s, and she is less explored on the page, but Matheson finds an affecting home within it).
In its final moments, the play, jagged with loss and struggle and humans far beyond their usual capacity, attempts something new – it tries to break open and make an offer of healing.
This scene shouldn’t feel earned, but here is where Sebbens, our compass and heart, does her best work. She coaxes out of the scene something that almost feels like a benediction, or at least a promise, that we don’t have to be lost forever. The way to overcome our worst selves, it seems, is by recognising that we are not only ourselves, but members of a community that’s bigger than we know; our collective strength is more powerful than our personal weaknesses.