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'Blackbird' play examines a forbidden and destructive relationship

Theater Review | 4 out of 5 stars

Published: Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Updated: Wednesday, February 25, 2009 13:02

The word "shock" begins David Harrower's play, "Blackbird," at the Speakeasy Stage in Boston. Though "Blackbird" does shock, it is much more complex than a simple shake-up of the audience's expectations.

The play essentially has two characters: Una (played by Marianna Bassham) and Ray (Bates Wilder). Theirs is a textbook story, but has unique elements. The couple met 15 years earlier, when Una was 12 and Ray was 40. They began a relationship and ran away together, leading to Ray's imprisonment and Una's psychological ruin.

Their story is about sexual abuse, something that society has deemed, in no uncertain terms, sick, wrong and unlawful. It is a well-known fact that no criminal is more harshly treated by his fellow inmates than a child molester; it is a crime even the most hardened murderer would think unforgivable.

"Blackbird" looks at one such perpetrator and his victim as though through the pages of an Ian McEwan novel. Yes, the crime was bad, and everyone's lives were ruined. But why did it happen? How did these characters find themselves in a sexual relationship all those years ago? It seeks not to validate but to explain the characters' story.

The audience discovers that the couple's affair did not consist of seduction or abandonment. It is presented (perhaps most shockingly) as a classic love story. Both Ray and Una are given their fair share of text, and the audience hears both sides, diplomatically and simply. The lines are not poetic; the characters are not particularly brilliant or penetrative. But the play leaves the audience trying to decide whether the arguments the characters present merit a re-examination of society's harsh moral judgment of their situation.

The play is framed almost like a second trial for Ray and Una. It takes place entirely in a break room at Ray's workplace -- some kind of pharmaceutical company -- where Una has tracked him down from a photo she found in a trade magazine. The room is bleak, empty and dirty. The only connection to the outside world is a frosted glass window to the hallway that is fully manipulated by director David Gammons. It is no coincidence that there is a strong feeling of interrogation coming alternately from Una and Ray. The transfer of power and use of physical levels between the characters is expertly executed.

Deception is brilliantly written into the script and delivered with all appropriate subtlety by Wilder. Through nervous tics, body language and vocal tone, Wilder manages to transform a seemingly one-dimensional character into someone worth listening to for 90 minutes. One may not necessarily sympathize with him, but he proves himself to be a different kind of person than one might expect from a sexual predator.

Though the entire play takes place between the same two characters and in the same room (despite an interesting power play between Una and Ray as one or the other attempts to "go outside"), it is far from static. Constant and varied movement and emotional ups and downs lend purpose to every minute. Bassham and Wilder work with and off one another with expert grace, and their complicated relationship is wholly believable even under the scrutiny of an intimate theater space.

This dark horse winner of the 2007 Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play is so successful because it is provocative with purpose. Its author has said that it is based loosely on a news story, but it manages to avoid the oft-sprung trap of filling in "behind the scenes" and justifying wrongdoings. Both characters change in their brief, one-act encounter, and in the end, the audience is left unseated and uncertain by the events they have just witnessed. That is the mark of the unity of script, direction and acting so valuable in theater.

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Blackbird

Written by David Harrower
Directed by David R. Gammons
At the Speakeasy Stage Company through March 21
Tickets $14 to $50

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