Scottish playwright David Harrower's gripping play is brought into intense focus in an in-your-face production at City Theatre. The audience is situated on either side of a long stage (football field-style), and the set is constructed in a way that adds to the slightly claustrophobic feeling. In theater, there is often a physical as well as atmospheric separation between stage and audience, but not here: we are flies on the wall of a very tense and personal encounter between two emotional people. It doesn't matter how soft the seat cushions are, or how much leg room we havewe're uncomfortable, and we can look past the stage to see the wide eyes of the other half of the audience to know we're not alone.
I wouldn't do you any favors if revealed too many details about the story, but the basic setting is a messy industrial break room, 15 years after the sexual affair between 55-year-old Ray (Steve Pickering) and 27-year-old Una (Robin Abramson)yes, she was 12 years old at the time. It's a reunion between the two, several years since Ray completed his prison term for the appropriate charges. Una is paying a surprise visit, and Ray nervously anticipates and dreads learning what her motives and intentions are (as do we) on this day. We read about such crimes in the news all too often, but Blackbird takes us behind the story we might see on "48 Hours Mystery." For at least this specific story, we learn what kind of person would do such a thing, and what effect it can have on the child. The play is not predictable, and it goes into some ugly corners of human behavior. And there's a gasp-inducing twist to cap things off.
These tough roles are well handled by Pickering and Abramson. Pickering is given some halting dialogue, with broken sentences and phrases; his delivery doesn't always sound natural. But his nervousness is palpable, and he develops the character well enough for us to fear he might be the guy in the next cubicle. And Abramson really has to bare it all, emotionally, which she does, though she seemed to go to the brink of tears only at the performance I attended. Both go all-out to create believable, fully charged characters.
Tony Ferrieri has provided a terrifically authentic setit's a third lead character, and put to full use in the riveting emotional and physical confrontation (watch for flying trash cans). Director Stuart Carden brings it all together in one of the best directed shows of the season. It's 90 minutes and intermission-free, for the good of all.
So, ok, it might not seem like the kind of show you go see during the holidays, but who can't use a little tempering of the sweetness of Santa and all that cheer? Either way, it's not a show to miss, and there's something to be said for the relief you'll feel when you leave the theatre, regain your senses and realize this is not part of your life after all.
Blackbird by David Harrower, through December 13 at the City Theatre's Lester Hamburg Studio. For performance times and ticket information, call 412.431.CITY (2489) or visit www.citytheatrecompany.org/.