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Chicago by John Olson

Blackbird
Victory Gardens Biograph Theatre

Also see John's review of Tupperware: An American Musical Fable

Blackbird
Mattie Hawkinson and
William L. Petersen

Sexual abuse of children, a phenomenon so emotionally charged it can barely be discussed analytically, remains a relatively invisible though widespread crime. (According to the Blackbird program notes, some 22% of females and 8% of males were sexually abused as children). Many of the crimes go unreported while many of the cases prosecuted are done so with little publicity, justifiably out of respect to the victim, but perhaps public revulsion over the crime precludes the sort of salacious interest the public displays for some many other offenses. That David Harrower's play can force audiences to explore this issue without drawing any pat conclusions is an astounding accomplishment.

As Blackbird opens in the generic break room of some industrial park workplace, an uncomfortable conversation between a middle-aged man and a young woman is underway. It's soon revealed that the man, Ray (William L. Petersen), had a five-month-long sexual relationship with the woman, Una (Mattie Hawkinson), 15 years prior when Una was 12 and Ray was 40. They're meeting for the first time since the affair ended, as Una has located Ray after seeing his photo in a magazine. Her precise motive for seeing him is not given. It may be a desire for closure or even a wish to resume the affair. Regardless, the meeting forces the two of them to relive the abuse, its horrifying end, and its aftermath.

It would wrong to say Harrower entirely refrains from taking sides. Ray, as the adult in the relationship, bears responsibility for the abuse and the character accepts it. Convicted of the crime and having served his sentence and rebuilt his life, is he entitled to redemption? He clearly has been unable to make amends to Una, who, as we hear her story and see her in action, continues to be deeply damaged by the memory of the abuse as well as by her family and community's reaction to it. Harrower makes the appropriateness of Ray's salvation even more difficult to ponder by making it ambiguous as to whether or not Ray is even rehabilitated or if he continues to harbor pedophilic desires.

Harrower's complex characters are meaty roles that allow and require nuanced performances, which they get abundantly from Peterson and Hawkinson. Petersen's Ray is tormented by his past and terrified that his ability to create a new life beyond the shame of his actions and legal conviction will be shattered by Una's reappearance in his life. Petersen gives us everything, but commendably no more, than the author intended. His Ray is no demon and we can empathize with his pain and fear, yet he is as guarded as Ray would be in this situation and Petersen respects the playwright's decision to keep us in doubt as to Ray's true character and desires. Mattie Hawkinson gets to show an astounding range of emotions, from ironic detachment to rage and panic. Una's psychic wounds virtually bleed all over the stage.

That the play's 80-minute length feels longer is a tribute to the ability of the cast and director Dennis Zacek to keep the tension high, as we share Ray's urgency to get Una out of the break room and out of his life. In Dean Taucher's detailed and intentionally mundane workplace set, believably cluttered with DJ Reed's props and Jesse Klug's appropriately harsh overhead industrial lighting, the realism of the performances punches you right in the gut with its emotional and physical authenticity. In the artistry of the creative team and in the realized intentions of its author to convince viewers to ponder and learn about a painful social issue, this is an example of live theatre at its highest level.

Blackbird will be performed through August 16, 2009 at Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago. For tickets and information, call the Victory Gardens box office at 773-871-3000 or visit www.victorygardens.org.


Photo: Liz Lauren

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-- John Olson



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