Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
While it is the holiday season, these premises are not anywhere near festive. The mood turns more somber as Ray (Laverne Seifert) aggressively ushers Una (Sara Marsh) into this unseemly space. Una has shown up to surprise Ray fifteen years after they were last together. She wants to talk on the warehouse floor or outdoors, but he won't have it, not at his workplace, where he is known as Peter. We know things will be tense when Ray avows that Una was the only 12-year-old he ever had sex with.
That was fifteen years ago, when Ray was 40. After serving prison time for his crime, Ray changed his name and moved away for a fresh start. Una's penance was being told by the judge that she, at age twelve, had "suspiciously adult yearnings," after which she lost all of her friends and spent the years since afflicting blows upon her bruise by making good on the judge's pronouncement at every chance. Now, a 27-year-old woman still nursing her girlhood wounds, she has discovered Ray's whereabouts and decided to pay a call. Exactly to what end is not clear at first, but over the course of Blackbird, David Harrower's 85-minute-long play, the begin to understand. Una knows her rash appearance may only cause her more humiliation, but she takes that chance hoping that it might offer her redemption.
Blackbird is the kind of gripping theater on which Dark & Stormy Productions has made its mark, and the company has a field day with this no-holds barred play, an archaeological dig where the artifacts of a searing relationship buried fifteen years ago come hurtling upward, stoking anger, remorse, sentimentality and desire. Layer by layer, Una scrapes the veneer of denial, avoidance and distraction that Ray has coated over his past.
The play was commissioned and first performed in 2005 at the Edinburgh International Festival in Scotland, Harrower's homeland, and after scoring awards in the London West End, made its Off-Broadway and U.S. regional debut in 2007. Dark & Stormy sets their production in 2007, which means the sexual relationship between Ray and Una happened in 1992, when many of the laws that deal with post-prison monitoring of sex offenders were not yet enacted and perhaps the understanding of a female minor in these cases as a victim rather than as a temptress was not as commonly held as it is today, or even as it was in 2007.
I use the term "sexual relationship" in the above paragraph as a generic placeholder, for what this was depends on who you ask and when you ask them. To the law it was statutory rape. But the ambiguity as to what their liaison meant to Ray and Una in 1992, and what it means in 2017, is what gives the play its jagged glass edge, keeping the audience sharply alert to shifts in where the moral high ground lies. This is the result of the confluence of Harrower's brilliantly scripted dialogue, Michaela Johnson's astute direction, and Marsh and Seifert's power-house performances. At the start of their encounter, Harrower has Ray and Una speak haltingly in unfinished phrases, leaving words hanging on cliffs, each at a loss to find logical language upon first seeing the other. As they get their bearings, Harrower gives them the words to express what they feel and what they want the other to know.
Sara Marsh summons her great talent for dramatically fraught characters and casts Una in a sea of uncertainty, treading water to maintain her hard-earned strength and dignity, while fighting against the currents threatening to drag her down and renounce her for having been, and perhaps remaining, a victim. She tosses out every trick in the book to place herself in a position of power over Ray. Marsh reveals both the great effort that Una undertakes, and the fears that lie not to far below the surface, fears of what happens if she fails. In a grueling monologue, Marsh recreates with stunning force the horror of the night her affair with Ray ended and the life that has replaced it.
Luverne Seifert is a wonderful comic actor, most often cast in nice guy roles. This works to his advantage, as he projects a "nice guy" patina around Ray when things start out. Here, he is at work, trying to earn a living and be a good company team member, when an overwrought woman barges in and insists that he acknowledge her, that he pay attention and listen to her. We imagine his concerned co-workers must be near at hand outside the break room, wondering if their Peter is okay. Of course, it doesn't take long before we understand who Una is and what she has been to Ray, but Seifert has already earned a willingness on our part to want to believe his accounts that make him not such a terrible person, a victim of his own passions, but not a pervert, not a monster. Without having us unwilling to ditch Ray as a predator and be completely on Una's side, the play would have nowhere to go. Seifert even manages to convince us that there was some good in Ray's behavior that last night they were together, that his judgment was clouded but not his honor.
Given the sizzling script and the galvanizing performances, director Johnson can let this encounter play itself out in real time, without allowing any foreshadowing to tip us off as to which way the scale will tip, so that It plays as a mystery as much as an issues playwill Ray prevail, or will Una, or will they both tumble off the fulcrum that each tries to claim? Tech credits are excellent all around, with Lisa Jones dressing Marsh's Una in a juvenile-looking party skirt, as if she is hoping that Ray may still see her as her 12-year-old self. Annie Enneking serves as Violence and Intimacy Director, bringing immediacy and authenticity to the actors' portrayals of these impulses.
Christmas lights or not, Blackbird is not remotely a feel-good play. It is harrowing, provocative, discomfiting, and asks its audience to suspend judgements in ways that current events of the past few years have told us are completely wrong. But it pays off, as a piece of excellent storytelling that keeps us wondering until the last minute, as a platform on which we can place our own values, concerns and histories that may be triggered by what we see on stage, and by two superb performances. See it, and have a cup of eggnog or plate of cookies ready as an antidote for the unseasonal feelings you are likely to carry out the door with you.
Blackbird, through January 5, 2019, at Dark & Stormy Productions in the Grain Belt Warehouse, 77 13th Avenue N.E, Studio 201, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $34.00 - $39.00, under age 30 tickets: $15.00. For tickets call 612-401-4506 or go to www.darkstormy.org.
Playwright: David Harrower; Director: Michaela Johnson; Costume Design: Lisa Jones; Lighting Design: Mary Shabatura; Sound Design: C. Andrew Mayer; Violence and Intimacy Director: Annie Enneking; Stage Manager: Rachael Rhodes; Technical and Design Consultant: Michael James; Assistant Director: Emily England; Producers: Myron Frisch and Patricia Johnson
Cast: Sara Marsh (Una), Luverne Siefert (Ray).