Review of Leaves
Leaves by Lucy Caldwell is an Irish family drama. After attempting suicide during her first term of university, Lori returns home to her parents and two younger sisters, Clover (15) and Poppy (11.) None of them know how to act around her. Her father David has no idea what to say to her. Her mother’s conversations with her all revolve around how she’s feeling. Poppy desperately wants to prove to her big sister that Poppy is grown up enough to talk about things. Clover is furious that Lori would even consider taking herself out of the lives of those that love her. Together and separately, the family tries to cope with the after-effects of the suicide attempt and wonders if they can ever go back to how things used to be.
Caldwell’s writing style is very much of the current time: fast-paced, overlapping dialogue and sparse action make up the play. Like many playwrights, Caldwell covers a heavy topic, but few do it so well as she does. She bravely covers the family’s feelings of betrayal and Clover’s unabashed anger. During one of Clover’s verbal lashings, Lori begs, “Please don’t do this to me.” “Oh, I’m sorry,” Clover snaps. “I forgot for a second that it was poor you. I forgot: You’re the one that swallowed a whole bottle of fucking sleeping tablets and almost died and I forgot that we had to be nice to you because of it.” Caldwell also doesn’t shy away from Lori’s struggles. In the first scene of Act II, Phyllis finds Lori outside smoking. She begs Lori to tell her where the parents went wrong and how they can fix things. “No, Mum,” Lori says. “Listen- you can’t- there wasn’t any- one thing– Mum. Look, Mum- I think- thinking about it- I think it’s always been there, inside of me- the sadness- like a shadow, you know- and you can’t- you can’t- lose- your shadow, you can’t- bundle it into a drawer you know? It’s not you, but it’s a part of you […] There’s nothing that you can do. There’s nothing that you or anyone can do, or say, or be, that will make things alright again. Just- don’t you see, Mum. Every single word you say make things work.”
Unlike some storytellers, Caldwell does not fall into the trap of feeling the need to please the entire audience. The play does not end on a happy note. The conclusion of the second act has the family gathered all together around a fire, singing old childhood songs. It could potentially be a cliched see-everything-will-be-all-right happy ending, but in the middle of laughing with her family, Lori suddenly becomes pensive. “I wish-” she begins, but can’t say what she’s thinking until finally she says fiercely, “I’d give anything- anything- to start again. Anything. I mean, if I believed in God or the devil, or- I’d give anything.” In the act that follows, the final one containing a single scene, we flash back to three months earlier, the day that Lori left for university. Just as David and Phyllis and their younger daughters have probably done a million times, the audience watches (or reads) the scene carefully, looking for anything, any sign of what might have warned them that this was coming. And just as it is in real life, there’s nothing. Lori seems happy- nervous but excited to travel from Belfast to London to start this new chapter in her life. Nothing points to her imminent suicide attempt.
A great part of the play as a whole- and perhaps the thing that might also keep it from being produced as often as it should- is how Irish it is. The subject matter and the family dynamic are universal, and they are written with dialogue that is very, very Irish. The characters use words like “Ey”/”aye” frequently and David is writing a book on Irish place names that seems to be written for an audience who is aware of said locations. The songs, too, appear to be written into the play to illicit nostalgia from the audience, but as an American, I had never heard them and so had little reaction. Obviously, plenty of plays and books are written with a specific readership in mind, but it pains me that such a powerful play might be avoided because it alienates part of its audience.
Despite the risk of it not being produced, however, Leaves is an incredibly moving, well-written piece. It speaks the truth about the repercussions of suicide (or suicide attempts) and doesn’t flinch in its storytelling.
PHYLLIS: It’s funny, isn’t it, but I can’t remember reading you this [story.] Did I ever read it to you, do you remember?
CLOVER: I don’t know, Mum. Probably not, no. Because it’s a true one, isn’t it, and we never liked the true ones much. It was the fairy tales we liked.
PHYLLIS: You’re right, Poppy. Get out of here as soon as you can. Go as far as you can. And never come back. You don’t want to live in Belfast. You don’t want to bring up children in Belfast. In fact, you don’t want to bring up children anywhere at all. Don’t bother with children, Poppy. Whatever you do, you’ll never be able to make things safe for them. One place is as fucked as another.
PHYLLIS: I’ve been thinking about it- when they were younger. It’s always Clover running after Lori, doing what Lori does, going where Lori goes, wanting what Lori wants. And now […] Lori’s been to a place where none of us can follow. A place where none of us can reach her.
LORI: I want to believe in things they way I used to believe in them, the way I used to believe in them without even thinking about it- without even knowing what I was believing. But I can’t, Mum, I can’t- and so I can’t see how I can go on- go on- living- because- because- I don’t think there’s any such thing as a future, Mum.