When Una, the 27 year-old British woman at the center of David Harrower’s startling and complex play Blackbird, tells a man named Ray, 15 years her senior, that he made her into a ghost, there is no question that she has come to haunt him. But why she does this and how she has come to confront Ray in a messy break room in an anonymous office complex outside of London is what makes this taut, 90 minute, two-hander so fascinating.
Blackbird was commissioned and premiered at the Edinburgh International Festival at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh in 2005. It transferred to the Albery Theatre in the West End in early 2006. It received its U.S. premiere at the Manhattan Theatre Club in 2007 in a production starring Alison Pill and Jeff Daniels. Mr. Daniels reprised his performance when Blackbird made its Broadway debut last season. He starred opposite Michele Williams.
Blackbird is a play that’s hard to explain. As I was writing this review, I found myself writing words, deleting them and rewriting. Over and over again. Because Blackbird isn’t about a relationship. And it’s not about rape. It’s not about abuse. And it’s not about sex. Or, maybe it’s about all of these things. What Blackbird is most certainly about is trauma and suffering. It’s about how time changes the way we remember the past and how the need for closure can often be futile.
When she was 12 years old, Una become sexually involved with Ray, who was 40 and at the time named Peter, having met him at a neighborhood barbecue. Three months later, Ray left a bed he shared with Una to get a pack of cigarettes and never returned. He was arrested, served a sentence in prison and disappeared into a new life, reinventing himself as a middle manager of a company that manufactures dental products hours from the small town where the crime of 15 years prior took place. While looking through a magazine in a doctor’s office, Una sees a photo of Ray née Peter and tracks him down. And this is where the play begins.
Harrower, an expert of economic, precise language that is reminiscent of Pinter, never judges Una or Ray. Nor does he take sides. Rather, he gives us two flawed, three-dimensional characters and thrusts them in to a situation where they must relive the events of the past. How they remember those events and the emotions they trigger are, at times, tender, furious and heart-wrenching.
Director Anthony Lane Hinkle has cast two extraordinary actors, Ann Turiano and Steven Shriner, in these very difficult roles. Ms. Turiano, attired in a low cut green blouse suggestive of a grown woman and knee socks reminiscent of a school girl, invests herself totally, physically and emotionally, in to this confused young woman. She handles the emotional shifts in the script, from anger to yearning to seduction to desperation, with expert skill. Watch her eyes as she sits on a table, staring through the audience, as if she is watching a home movie documenting events she had hoped to forget. It is devastating.
Mr. Shriner, a tightly coiled imposter, unravels when confronted by his past. Moving between remorse, passion, confusion and fear, Mr. Shiner convincingly plays Ray, not as a predator, but as an everyman who has made a terrible mistake and been rehabilitated, which makes our response to his actions less clear cut.
The set design, also by Mr. Hinkle, is a stark white generic room, littered with detritus, which symbolically mirrors the mess that Una and Ray have created. Christopher Flint’s harsh lighting exposes the actors. We see them as they are, not as how they want to be seen.
Fells Point Corner Theatre’s production of Blackbird is as good if not better than anything I’ve seen on Baltimore’s larger stages, but be warned, Blackbird is not an easy play to digest. It will gnaw at you and get under your skin. But art shouldn’t always be easy. It should force us to examine the world around us and ask difficult questions. You will leave Blackbird with more questions than answers. Unlike Una and Ray, Harrower lets us know that closure isn’t about the destination, but about the journey. And that, for better or worse, the past is something you must own. Only then, can you be truly free.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.