Machu Picchu, by Sue Smith | Directed by Geordie Brookman

Sydney Theatre Company (www.sydneytheatre.com.au) & State Theatre Company of South Australia | Wharf 1 Theatre, Walsh Bay, Sydney | Until 9 April

Machu Picchu is as stark, as provocative and sometimes as brutal as one of The Sydney Morning Herald’s front-page headlines last week: “Suicide rate soars to highest level in 13 years”.

And yes, suicide is very much one of the issues broached by writer Sue Smith in her new play about the devastating effects of quadriplegia on, in this case, a middle-aged engineer, Paul (Darren Gilshenan).

While fellow engineer and Paul’s wife, Gabby (Lisa McCune), escapes unscathed from a car crash, Paul is left paralysed — and wondering whether life really is worth continuing with.

Gilshenan and McCune are touchingly convincing as a couple whose lives have been thrown into total chaos, who must virtually start their relationship from scratch, and who will almost certainly never realise their dream of visiting the architectural and engineering wonders of Machu Picchu together.

That Smith really understands the complexities of character and relationships was amply illustrated a couple of years ago in another of her plays, Kyptonite, which was also staged by the Sydney Theatre Company.

And she knows the fragility of life only too well from a personal battle with non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

The actors’ close study of quadriplegia is obvious as Paul and Gabby try to salvage what they can from a relationship that already had some bad cracks — the search for adequate sexual expression, the battle with uncontrolled bowel movements, delusions exacerbated by pain-killing drugs (a middle toe that keeps talking to Paul and a visit from Elvis) and above all the reinvigoration of genuine mutual love.

The use of flashbacks is well managed by director Geordie Brookman and they certainly flesh out the relationship, warts and all, between Paul and Gabby.

Probably less convincing is Smith’s development of Machu Picchu’s secondary characters — Paul and Gabby’s close friends Kim (Elena Carapetis) and the somewhat gormless Marty (Luke Joslin), who have their own problems with infertility; daughter Lucy (Annabel Matheson), a sexually promiscuous medical student; and new-age psychologist and yoga devotee Lou (Renato Musolino).

They’re all fine actors and they all work hard in roles that could do with more development. Joslin’s secondary role as the Elvis apparition is particularly worthy.

But really, when all is done and dusted, the success of Machu Picchu really rests squarely with Gilshenan and McCune, and there could be few more capable hands than theirs to handle Smith’s emotional roller coaster.

As to whether the play lives up to STC’s former Artistic Director Andrew Upton’s call — “... lifts up the faded carpet of middle age to look at the stained underlay ...” — you’ll have to have to see for yourself. It’s certainly worth the admission just to see two absolute masters of the stage show off their vast skills and experience.

Above: Darren Gilshenan and Lisa McCune. All images: Brett Boardman.

Darren Gilshenan and Luke Joslin.

Annabel Matheson and Darren Gilshenan.

Darren Gilshenan, Luke Joslin, Elena Carapetis, Lisa McCune and Renato Musolino.