Theatre Review by Howard Miller - October 11, 2021
Is This A Room. Conceived and directed by Tina Satter. Associate director Randi Rivera. Scenic design by Parker Lutz. Costume design by Enver Chakartash. Lighting design by Thomas Dunn. Original music and co-sound design by Sanae Yamada. Co-sound design by Lee Kinney. Puppet design by Amanda Villalobos.
This much we know. In 2017, a 25-year-old woman by the name of Reality Winner, a U.S. Air Force vet with top-secret security clearance, was working as a translator for a private intelligence contractor when she was arrested, charged, convicted, and sentenced to a five-year prison term for leaking an intelligence report about Russian interference in the 2016 elections.
Previously staged off Broadway at the Vineyard Theater, Is This A Room (the title comes from an offhand remark by one of the FBI agents) was conceived and is being directed by Tina Satter. It was Satter's vision to create a dramatic staging of the verbatim transcript of the FBI interview of Winner. For even greater verisimilitude, the production incorporates "ums" and "ers," pauses, and coughs (one of the agents had a sinus infection). It even includes redactions from the transcript, indicated through momentary blackouts and crackly static.
We first meet Winner (Emily Davis giving a masterly performance) as she approaches her rented home in Augusta, Georgia, carrying bags of groceries. Outside her door, she is met by two men, who, after some low-key friendly chitchat, identify themselves as Agents Garrick (Pete Simpson) and Taylor (Will Cobbs). They are sometimes joined by a third, identified as "Unknown Male" (Becca Blackwell). For a while, Winner is so nonchalant that you'd think she is trying to figure out how she might know these men. Until they finally get around to letting her know they have a search warrant for her house and her car.
"Do you know what this might be about?" asks Garrick. Winner's response: "I have no idea." Thus, the cat-and-mouse game begins, and here's where factual truth and theatrical truth both intersect and veer apart, punctuated by Sanae Yamada's anxious underscoring.
The two lead FBI agents mention several times that, aside from the warrant that will allow them to conduct their search, their interview of Winner will be "completely voluntary" on her part. She consents, seeming to shrug it off as routine, wondering aloud if it might have something to do with her goal of being deployed as an intelligence linguist to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. But if she believes this, it quickly becomes clear it is more of a self-deception than an FBI ploy to get her to talk about what they have come for, "the possible mishandling of classified information."
Here's where Satter's direction and Davis's quietly authentic performance show their greatest strength. The actor skillfully takes her character from friendly collegiality and innocence to helpful responder to a bullied victim's nervous tears. Yet she also gradually reveals that underneath it all, she is quite knowledgeable and completely comfortable with being less than forthcoming. Here we have someone with a military background, someone with intelligence clearance, someone who nonchalantly reveals that she possesses an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, a 15-gauge semi-automatic rifle, and a Glock 9 semi-automatic handgun. We learn, as well, that she resents being held back in her career, her talents wasted translating Farsi documents where her skill in languages lies in her command of Pashto and Dari, widely spoken in Afghanistan.
All in all, this is what intrigues about Is This A Room. The real-life Reality Winner has had a lot of supporters since her initial arrest (she was recently released to a transitional facility to serve out the rest of her sentence). In the end, however, the play itself comes off as surprisingly well balanced. The FBI agents are occasionally threatening (three big men against one petite woman), but generally they conduct things with courtesy and with openness. As Winner, Davis exits the scene with our sympathy, but not necessarily for the easy reason of believing in her innocence. Justification is, of course, another issue that you will need to decide for yourself.