Blessing's 1988 Two Rooms
Lee Blessing's political psychodrama, Two Rooms, is a high-stakes chess game in which a hostage in Beirut and his stateside wife become pawns in a power play between government policy and the interests of the media. With last year's spate of hostage-taking and beheadings in Iraq, and America's cruelty to political prisoners, it feels as urgent today as it must have done when Blessing wrote it in response to the hostage crisis in Lebanon in 1988. Rooms has the potential to be as taut as a garrote, but Theatre in the Round Player's production feels slow as it begins and does not fully realize its tension until the second act.
The play hinges on the tragic impact government maneuvering and the media's appetite to scoop emotion-laden stories can have on ordinary people.
Rooms opens in Beirut in 1988. Under Matt Sciple's direction, Ari Hoptman as Michael Wells, an American professor who has been teaching at the University of Beirut, shuffles, blindfolded and handcuffed, into an oblong boundary of light that defines his cell in Nicole Simoneau's poetic light design. Within that bleak boundary is a mat upon which Michael spends his interminable days in darkness. He is held for three years and transported frequently, closed in a coffin, to new locations. Simoneau defines one new place with a perimeter of barbed wire light.
Michael's wife Lainie, played by Ellen Apel, strips his study at home to its bare walls, shuts out light and spends hours on a mat in the room to feel closer to her imprisoned husband. Journalist Walker Harris (David Coral) presses Lainie to tell her story and ignite the oxygen of public opinion. State Department representative Ellen Van Oss (Karen Weise-Thompson) urges silence. Both play on Lainie's vulnerable emotions in a nightmare situation in which right and wrong slip around in shifting ambiguities.
It's hard to play the part of a hapless victim, but Hoptman finds pathos and dignity in Michael. Michael's communication with Lainie takes the form of unwritten letters. As he remembers their lives together, the line of light that defines his cell dissolves. He tells her about his unseen captors, their punishments to him and his disorientation with time.
Lainie's communication with Michael is also epistolary, and director Sciple finds some lovely scene transitions in which the two do commune, she in Michael's bare study, he in his distant cell. Lainie's role in Rooms is pivotal to the success of the play. Apel sometimes plumbs Lainie's grief, her anger and confusion, but beneath these moments, I felt an actor striving, and I was not immersed in Lainie's distress.
Weise-Thompson plays mannish Ellen Van Oss from the State Department and convinces. She's tough, detached and determined. Her job is to prevent Lainie from going public with her story, and to hold nosey reporters at bay. In the context of 1988, the government was trumpeting "no negotiation with terrorists," but it was secretly involved with the Iran-Contra trade of arms for hostages. Weise-Thompson's Van Oss is all steel-edged officialdom until a human moment in the second act when she admits to reporter Harris the government's misjudgement in underestimating the risk to lower value hostages.
Part of what is missing in this production is the chemistry that the script invites between Harris and Lainie. Coral brings vigor to the reporter, and a sexually charged push-pull between them might have electrified the production. He becomes her only - and not entirely trustworthy - friend in her self-imposed isolation. The audience is never quite sure whether he is motivated to get a rip-roaring good story, or whether his goal is to help Lainie.
Carolann Winter's season-changing costumes boost the sense of passing years as Michael remains in captivity, and Katharine Horowitz's subtle sound design orients the audience to place as scenes switch back and forth. The set is nakedly simple in John Dwyer's design, just a rug, Simoneau's clever lighting and intermittent archival slides that are projected onto the walls of TRP's rotunda.
Two Rooms is a powerful play that disturbs with its ambiguities and insights. TRP's production is timely and affecting and yet not as gripping as it could be.
Two Rooms January 7 - 30, 2005. Fridays and Saturdays 8:00 p.m. Sunday 23, 7:00 p.m., Sunday 30, 2:00p.m. Tickets $20. Theatre in the Round Players, Cedar Avenue South, Minneapolis. Call 612-333-3010.