If you haven’t heard of Deborah Mailman, then Google her.  Twenty years ago, I first saw Mailman on stage, and I am still surprised when I meet people who have never heard of her. 

Since 1995, she has developed into one of Australia’s great actors and has shone in Rabbit Proof Fence, The Sapphires, The Secret Life of Us.  She and Wesley Enoch wrote The 7 Stages of Grieving 20 years ago after the death of Enoch’s grandmother; the two melded personal grief and history with national grief and history and the result is a one-person show that has achieved national success.

In Grin and Tonic’s production, Chenoa Deemal replaces Mailman.  Under a spotlight, surrounded by circles of stone, Deemal recounts her family history and in particular her love for her grandmother – it is a universal love, we all know how we grieve when death comes. It is a sad show, a touching one, but it is written with humour and insight. From the arrival of the “boat people” (yes, that’s the First Fleet), we are taken on an emotional journal – Deemal recollects family occasions filled with song (“Delta Dawn” will never be the same song for me), personal incidents that are amusing but that quickly become moments of racial injustice. She celebrates the Sorry March in which it seemed that perhaps the nation could get it right. Wreck con silly nation appears on the backdrop, reminding the audience that the differences are silly – the words blur as rain (or is it tears) distorts them. We still have a long way to go.  Above all, the play makes the audience feel: frustrated that we don’t share enough time with our loved ones, incredulous at our inability to resolve racial issues, and glad that we share a continent. Few people left the auditorium with dry eyes.

The show is short at 55 minutes. The direction is sharp thanks to Grin and Tonic’s Artistic Director Jason Klarwein. Daniel Anderson’s lighting is effective, as is the projection design (Justin Harrison).  All of the crew Maddie Nixon (Stage Manager) and Kellie Lazarus (Producer) are to be commended too. It’s a tight, emotional, well scripted and performed production—and Deemal is brilliant. If you only see one show this year, then make it this one.

With a little textual tweaking, the play is as relevant today as it was when I first saw 7 Stages of Grieving. Unfortunately. Though we have had the Sorry March and have said sorry, has much actually changed? If you don’t know who Deborah Mailman is, then perhaps the answer is a sorry no.

The 7 Stages of Grieving, QTC, 17- 31 March.

Words by Toni Johnson-Woods