Nessa (Mann) is a white woman who travels spur-of-the-moment to Alice Springs. Once there and wandering around lost, she strikes up a conversation with Tilly (McDonald), an Indigenous woman. Tilly is crocheting a beanie for the Alice Springs Beanie Festival, and insists Nessa drive her to 'rennell'. Nessa, despite her initial confusion and knee-jerk wariness, is talked into it and then discovers she's actually driving Tilly to her regular renal dialysis appointment. The two women become friends and make many beanies together.
Now, I know that over-simplified description doesn't make this sound like a story that hangs together particularly well. But it does, and it's a play that's deeply layered with themes and discussions specific to Australian culture and social politics. The friendship that grows between Tilly and Nessa does so despite - or because of - their completely different backgrounds, and despite tensions of class, wealth, historic racism and stereotypes, and even a language barrier. And the beanies, while simple on the surface, are genuinely meaningful, and never treated as any kind of gimmick.
Nessa's initial reactions to the harsh realities of Alice Springs are realistic; she's a Sydney resident visiting a remote area for the first time, and she's unprepared and uncomfortable with the poverty she finds there. Tilly's unimpressed reactions to this strange white woman are also unsentimental and honest. Nessa adapts, though, partly through her attachment to Tilly, and comes to find her 'new normal' deeply rewarding. The beanies and Tilly's renal dialysis appointments foster an unusual relationship, which by the end of the play deepens from awkward friendship to a sisterly bond.
Much like the beanies, though, the warmth of this new friendship - and the often hilarious conversations between Tilly and Nessa - have another side, another story. Tilly and Nessa can't escape their reality, as complex and tragic as it is. The dialysis and Tilly's kidney failure aren't played for pathos, though, but with enough combined resignation and frustration to feel extremely honest. The play also takes the time to correct the misconception that the high prevalence of kidney failure in Indigenous communities is from alcohol abuse. It's not; frequently it's due to birth defects and the impossible health conditions facing Indigenous Australians today.
There's also exploration of the emotional difficulties of dialysis patients from remote areas. At one point, Tilly explains to Nessa that she has to stay in Alice Springs for treatment, but her real home, her 'country' is hours away. She mourns not only the fact that her disease means she will die early, but that her need for treatment keeps her away, when she should be at home teaching the next generation of Indigenous Australians the traditions of the land.
This part is based in fact; Indigenous elders requiring treatment are forced to live hundreds of kilometers away from their country, and family members are not always able to accompany them, not without significant cost. The importance of country - home, family, traditional lands, all the places Indigenous Australians are deeply linked to - is beautifully realised in the play, as is the pain of separation from that country. The loss of a generation of elders to kidney disease and other ailments is also clearly shown as a loss for the younger generations, of language, stories, history, and a loss of connection and sense of community and family for so many Indigenous people.
Overall, I found the story and themes explored in this play not only affecting but deeply humanising. It's all too easy to ignore social problems when they're not right in front of your face, and I feel this play is extremely successful in drawing attention and promoting the difficulties facing Indigenous Australians with kidney disease. Not only that, but the warmth and tragedy of Tilly and Nessa's story made for a wonderful and deeply engaging piece of theatre.
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