The Dreamer Examines His Pillow is John Patrick Shanley’s story of love gone bad in the New York of the 1980s. It is one of the earliest works by Shanley, the Bronx native-turned-Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, and it doesn’t pull any punches. Vashti Pontaks, director of the upcoming Sydney production, is giddy with excitement when she contemplates the work. “Shanley’s script is pretty amazing stuff to be exploring,” she says, “because his writing is so incredible. It’s really raw and beautiful and poetic. It’s great to explore that with the actor, it’s quite a brave text, and it’s been a great process. There’s a lot of thought-provoking, rich, intense stuff in there, and that’s where the beauty is. It’s full-on but very rewarding.”

The story of the play concerns a dysfunctional couple, Donna and Tommy, who have just broken up, but cannot stay out of each other’s orbits. “They’re grappling with a lot of fears and desires,” Pontaks explains. “It starts with her coming to his house to confront him because she thinks he’s been hitting on her sister, and from there, all their shit starts to fly around the room, things go from ‘I hate you’ to ‘I love you’. There’s passion and rejection. She wants him to wake up to himself, but it’s not happening, she doesn’t know what to do with him, so she goes to see her dad …”

Donna’s dad is a tough customer. “She wants him to come around and talk to Tommy, to beat him up, to do something to try and get through to him,” Pontaks says. “So in the next part of the play, she goes to visit her dad to talk the whole situation out with him, and then that’s a whole other thing in itself. There’s a lot of mirroring in the play, the issues she has with her boyfriend are the same ones her dad had with her mother, who has now passed away. You see these ideas of problems coming down through the generations. She finally gets through to him, asks him to please go and talk to her boyfriend and save the day, and then things get really interesting.”

For Pontaks, the true beauty of the play lies in Shanley’s rich dialogue. “To steal some of the words from the play, what I like about Shanley is that he expresses the ordinary and the extraordinary together,” she says. “He comes from The Bronx, and he saw Cyrano de Bergerac at a young age and was amazed by the poetry in it, and he’s spoken since about how in his writing, he tries to express both his roots and his love of the poetic. I think everyone in life has that – moments where we experience the mundane, the ordinary, the everyday, but there’s something else there, something amazing. That’s what attracts me to his writing, really.”

Given The Dreamer Examines His Pillow’s setting, actors Ainslie Clouslton, Scott Lee and Peter McAllum have had to brush up on their Bronx accents. “They saw accent coaches before we started the rehearsal process, refining and working to get them just right,” she says. “The two main actors we have, just in general, do a lot of voice work, so they’re professionals in that sense. Peter, who plays the dad, he’s been acting for quite a long time so he knows accents really well. Everyone has their tapes, they’ve watched videos,” she continues “You just can’t do this play without the accents, because Shanley writes how people speak, you know? For example, ‘yellow’ is written as two separate words. The script is full of details like that, and it’s just amazing.”


The Dreamer Examines His Pillow presents at TAP Gallery until December 21.

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