The more things change, the more they stay the same. Or, at least so it seems when it comes to terrorist politics and the relationship between the government and the media. Though originally produced in 1988, Lee Blessing's Two Rooms could not be more timely.
The play tells the story of Michael Wells (Thomas James O'Leary), an American professor at a university in Beirut, who is captured by a militant faction and held in a tiny cell for three years. Back in the United States, his wife Lainie (Monica Koskey), has "cleansed" his former office by removing everything from it. She spends most of her time there to share in his experience as much as she can. Throughout the course of the play, she is visited by Walker Harris (Steve Cell), a newspaper reporter, and Ellen Van Oss (Beth Dixon), the government official who has been assigned to her.
Perhaps Blessing's greatest achievement in the play is the even-handed nature with which he handles the events. Other than showing the similarity in the "torturing" of both Michael and Lainie, he simply presents the information and lets you make up your own mind. There are few easy answers in Two Rooms for Lainie, or for us.
Also strong and interesting is Blessing's treatment of the relationship between the press and the government. Who is in control? Who is more helpful to the victims, and who has the better chance of getting things done? Though someone in Lainie's position would have a much different outlook on the situation, the way we face life in the wake of the attack on the World Trade Center is much the same as her struggle, with a similar set of players, just bearing different names. If you're not sure who's on your side, Blessing succeeds at making strangely compelling reasons why.
Each of the actors gives a strong performance. Koskey is perhaps the most affecting, given the nature of her role, but Cell and Dixon are both very strong and believable as opposing pieces on Lainie's chessboard, and the few scenes they have together display real fire that gives the play its most exciting moments. O'Leary has it much more difficult, since most of his scenes are played alone, and Blessing's dramatization of his solitary existence frequently seems much more forced and unreal than the rest of the play. Leary handles most of it well, though.
Roger Danforth has skillfully directed the piece so that it moves quickly and smoothly from one scene to the next. Roman Tatarowicz's set is simple but sparse (by necessity), with the use of scrims and lighting of his own design to facilitate scene changes, cinematic cross-cutting, and so on.
Perhaps Danforth's greatest direction, however, was in choosing to go ahead with this production in light of the recent events here in New York. In a note he's written that's included in the program, he discusses the difficulty in making the decision to deal with such heated topics in a time when it is every bit as desirable, if not more so, to seek escapist entertainment instead.
The program note is, in many ways, every bit as important as the play itself, displaying the same type of drive and determination that Lainie possesses, and that we must all deal with in the world today. Two Rooms is not always easy to watch, but the strength of the writing, production, and the acting make it seem cleansing in its own way. If escapist entertainment is what you want, Two Rooms isn't it. But it is full of words and images that we should all remember now, more than ever. Theatre has the power to inspire, and it is a power this production of Two Rooms wields to its fullest.
Blue Heron Theatre presents