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“I would give anything for a moment’s fame… I mean for happiness,” swears an adolescent Mary MacLane, desperate to escape the isolation and tedium of life in the mining town Butte, Montana.

MacLane’s conflicted ambitions are at the heart of The Story of Mary MacLane by Herself. Fame comes early in the shape of a best-selling and scandalous memoir (published in 1902, at just 19), but happiness remains elusive.

MacLane borrows her mantra from Walt Whitman: “I contain multitudes”. But this professed inner multiplicity cannot assuage MacLane’s evident loneliness.

Bojana Novakovic is excellent in capturing the anxious vicissitudes of MacLane’s character as she bounces between child-like vulnerability and belligerent self-assurance. Novakovic, who also wrote the play, remains convincing, even when the play bursts into moments of frenzy and experimentation, such as when it veers into the modern-day and Novakovic reads from her own diaries.

Novakovic is joined on stage by Tim Rogers (from power pop band You Am I), whose nameless character is MacLane’s general dog’s body (despite playing counsellor and promoter, among other roles, this character is pointedly uncredited in the play’s title). MacLane’s story is episodic and interspersed with Rogers’ jaunty acoustic numbers.

Rogers’ lyrics have always been rich and thick with language, and his monologues in this performance are no different. This verbal presence contrasts with a self-conscious and uncertain physicality, which would be a distraction if it was not so suited to his role as put-upon manager of a diva.

The problem with Rogers’ character is that his very presence draws our attention away from MacLane: she is a confessional writer and flamboyant personality, yet much of her story is told or coaxed out by Rogers; she is painfully lonely, yet she is on stage with a long-suffering friend. Indeed, the atmosphere in the theatre does become palpably tense when Rogers eventually leaves the stage.

MacLane’s fluctuating self-opinion is apparent in her costumes: she is either vulnerable in a nightie or vampish in corsetry. Rogers and his talented band at the back of stage (double bassist Mark Harris and fiddler Andrew Baylor) are dressed like they’ve just left a Wild West saloon.

The golden proscenium and drawn curtains at the back of the stage suggest we might be behind-the-scenes at one of MacLane’s grander public appearances. A whimsical interlude of raining potatoes is a reminder of MacLane’s domestic origins.

Until May 12, SBW Stables Theatre, 10 Nimrod St, Kings Cross, $30-49, 9361 3817,