Molly Powell and Jodie Lynn McClintockin Daisy in the Dreamtime(Photo © Tom Bloom)
Molly Powell and Jodie Lynn McClintock
in Daisy in the Dreamtime
(Photo © Tom Bloom)
Daisy Bates, an Irishwoman of the late Victorian era, became widely known for her written record of life among Australian Aborigines in the 1920s and 30s, even though she lacked an anthropology degree. The product of a broken home that left her in an orphanage, Bates had cultivated herself to become the governess in a respectable Dublin household, but a scandal involving the young man of the house led her to flee for the farthest outpost of the English-speaking world.

This remarkable woman's life is the subject of a 1995 biography by Julia Blackburn and of the new play Daisy in the Dreamtime by Lynne Kaufman, now playing in the Abingdon Theater's recently inaugurated space on West 36th Street. Blackburn's book and others make it clear that Bates's epic story would require an equally epic theatrical production to communicate its full sweep; Kaufman's play focuses on the portion of Bates's life lived in Australia, including her marriage to one of two men she wed there and her relationship with the indigenous peoples of Ooldea (in Southwest Australia).

The difficulties of writing a play about this woman are much like those the protagonist herself encountered in summoning the sensitivity, honesty, and accuracy of observation to come to know a people so alien from herself. Kaufman's foremost accomplishment is her writing for the play's one Aborigine, a leader whom Daisy calls King Billy. The character, while impossible for this critic to weigh against first-hand experience, feels consistently real and unforced. This is especially impressive given the degree to which Bates is initiated into the mysteries of the native residents by Billy, including a concept of time that fuses past, present, and future in an ever-present "dreamtime." Blessing the play with its best realized performance, Jerome Preston Bates is astonishing as King Billy; he brings to this high-wire-walk of a role a balance that is rare, unifying voice control, physical movement, and the remarkable expressiveness of his eyes.

As for the play as a whole, Kaufman's writing and the direction of Kim T. Sharp is uneven. Daisy's relationship with Billy is forthright, disarming, and in some respects wistful, but her spiritual union with him might have been more personalized. The same could be said for her conflict with Annie Lock, a German nun devoted to converting the Aborigines and offering them a "choice" of how to live (the role is well played by Jodie Lynn McClintock). Lock's interaction with Daisy leads to predictable friction and self-righteousness on both parts. While Kaufman's script plays up the irony of Daisy's constant references to the Aborigines as "my people," one senses that the playwright grasps the issues at hand but has not transcended them; there is little self-awareness evident in the closer to Act I, when Daisy bemoans the coming of the railroad and we are meant to feel that she is a spokesperson of the oppressed.

While the first act is a bit slow moving, with a flashback to Ireland that seems cursory and fanciful, the direct-address form of much of the script allows it to be laden with the kind of novelistic detail that reads more easily than it stages. Sharp has not directed her way out of this problem as successfully as one would hope. Additionally, the performance of the lovely Molly Powell as Daisy, while strong and multifaceted, is hampered by an accent that wavers and by the actress's unwillingness to break through the character's emotional restraint in scenes that call for such an approach.

Bates's alienation from European society was so complete that her embrace of Aboriginal people of the Ooldea region was near-total, allowing her an integration with and understanding of them that was unique among her peers. Those peers -- credentialed anthropologists like Radcliffe-Jones (Larry Swansen) -- are essentially presented here as buffoons whose inability to see beyond the ends of their noses finally dashes hopes and lives. Aided by the choreography of Karen Azenberg, performed by Afra Hines and Carey Macaleer, the story is a compelling one. Had Lynne Kaufman delved more deeply into Bates' complexity as an unreliable narrator and as a woman whose exile was rooted in painful events, we would have had more to chew on intellectually. Yet this often sentimental piece wraps up in a way that fits its subject matter, with a lovely metaphor that makes clear the power of a worldview as different from ours and Daisy's as that of the Aborigines.