Joey ends Blue Room year on a high

Margi Brown Ash and Philip Miolin in Joey: the Mechanical Boy. Picture by Leigh Brennan

In their award-winning 2012 show Eve, writer-performer Margi Brown Ash and writer-director Leah Mercer told the sad story of the now-forgotten Australian writer Eve Langley. The biographical details, though, were just a jumping off point for their exploration of Eve's rapture and for Ash's remarkable performance.

Their new play, Joey: the Mechanical Boy, also deals with real events and people. They may be obscure now but in the American frenzy for all things Freudian after World War II, the autistic boy Joey, his so-called "refrigerator mother" and the psychotherapist Bruno Bettelheim were big news.

Much of Bettelheim's analysis and approach - especially his claim that autism was the result of psychological trauma in infancy rather than a neuro-developmental disorder - has been discredited. Still, for four decades, his views were highly influential.

Playing the autistic is a treacherous venture. The emotional nakedness, the wild swings and pulverising truthfulness are gripping but the slightest tilt into melodrama or self-consciousness can instantly make the characterisation a parody, and contemptible. Philip Miolin - almost unrecognisable even when the mask and helmet he wears through most of the play are removed - delivers a career performance as Joey.

Mercer prudently resists the temptation to bring clarity to moments where it escapes Joey. This makes his savant insights ("Growing up is how much you change on the outside") blindingly lucid, and Miolin's performance even more accurate and impressive.

That resistance presents the audience with some challenges reaching understanding and meaning but, happily, Ash and Mercer let us discover explanations for Joey's disorder organically, rather than force-feeding us, as Peter Shaffer did in his deplorable Equus.

Tessa Darcey's claustrophobic, ramshackle set, Karen Cook's strikingly precise lighting and Joe Lui's dense, edgy soundscape echo Joey's interior landscape, adding greatly to the show.

And, best of all, Ash's longstanding collaboration with Mercer brings her back to Perth. She's powerful and utterly convincing as both Joey's mother and Bettelheim; her transitions flawless, her voices precise, her physical and emotional control exquisite. She's quite something.

Joey is the last of 49 shows presented by the Blue Room in 2014. That's a signal achievement by its executive director Kerry O'Sullivan, producer Susannah Day, their small team and the Blue Room's wider community of artists. Make no mistake; it is the central and most important enterprise in West Australian theatre.