Nathan Maynard’s new play The Season takes us to Dog Island, just off the coast of Tasmania, and into the world of an Indigenous family who are making their annual pilgrimage there for the mutton-bird harvest, just as their ancestors have done since time immemorial.

Tammy Anderson, Luke Carroll, Kelton Pell, Lisa Maza, James Slee, Nazaree Dickerson. Photo by Prudence Upton

Writing in the theatre programme, Maynard explains that he himself comes from “a proud birding family” who belong to a community known as “the mutton-bird people”. And in writing about what he knows, Maynard gives us a big-hearted drama that feels like an authentic slice of life.

A co-presentation by Tasmania Performs and Sydney Opera House, The Season makes its world premiere at the Sydney Festival where it has a short season.

Sweetly loving older couple Ben Duncan (Kelton Pell) and his wife Stella (Tammy Anderson) have returned once more to Dog Island for the mutton-bird harvest. Suspecting that they may not have that many seasons left in them, Ben is determined to harvest more than his neighbour and arch rival Neil Watson (Trevor Jamieson) and sell them to a flash restaurant.

Joining them are their son Ritchie (Luke Carroll) who has previously worked for Watson, their daughter Lou (Nazaree Dickerson) who hasn’t been there for quite a few years, and Lou’s son Clay (James Slee) who is apprehensive at his first taste of birding, and impatient for his father to arrive. Stella’s sister Auntie Marlene (Lisa Maza) is also there.

Trevor Jamieson and Luke Carroll. Photo by Prudence Upton

Designed by Richard Roberts, with lighting by Rachel Burke, the staging is very eloquent. The raked stage is covered by a cloth under which there are holes representing the mutton-birds’ burrows (in which snakes are also wont to hide). Hanging half way down the back wall is another cloth onto which are projected various images including clouds, birds and Aboriginal dot painting. On the left is the family’s small kitchen.

Structurally the play is a little rough around the edges at times, unfolding at a similar pitch throughout with no great dramas. A secret affair, the revelation of a long-held secret, the conflict with Watson and a Senior Ranger (also played by Jamieson) could all have had the potential to turn nasty in a different drama, but here they are dealt with gently and amicably.

If you know nothing about mutton-birding – I knew a little but not much – it’s fascinating, with a few slightly stomach-churning details, but Roberts and director Isaac Drandic deal with this cleverly by using pieces of grey cloth to represent the birds.

Led by a white, pilot bird known as “the spirit bird”, the mutton-bird undertakes an extraordinary 30,000-kilometre migration from Tasmania to Alaska and then back to breed in the same burrow every year. Without labouring the point, Maynard draws parallels between the birds and the characters, who are drawn back to their spiritual home on Dog Island.

Kelton Pell with Lisa Maza, James Slee, Luke Carroll, Tammy Anderson, Trevor Jamieson and Nazaree Dickerson. Photo by Prudence Upton

There is lots of exuberant, cheeky humour, particularly for the women who have plenty of bolshie banter expressed in colourful language. The female actors respond with big, generous performances. But there is terrific truthful acting from everyone in the all-Indigenous cast. It’s clear there was plenty of recognition from many in the audience on the night that I saw it, with whoops and raucous laughter.

Running 90 minutes without interval, The Season is a joyous, gently illuminating play exploring themes of family, tradition, generational change and the call of an Indigenous community’s spirit home. There’s also a lovely twist regarding racist attitudes and grog, which, true to the spirt of the play, is handled with a light touch and healthy dose of humour.

The Season plays at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House until January 15