A haunting tale about a confrontation between a couple years after their illicit affair will resonate long after you leave the theater.
What can be written about "Blackbird'' – a play so disturbing, yet so telling in its exploration of humanity’s contradictions on the dark side – that can convey the conflicting emotions of a viewer?
To describe the subject matter as "adult'' is to state only the surface of the plot about a 40-year-old man who sexually abused a 12-year-old girl and paid for his crime with jail time. However, as the play reminds us, life is not tied up so neatly, and the punishment does not always absolve the criminal of the crime, or allow the victim to move on. Nor is a prison sentence a guaranteed cure.
Scottish playwright David Harrower has written what is essentially a two-person drama that walked off with London’s 2007 Laurence Olivier prize for best new play and went on to a critically praised off-Broadway production last year. Speakeasy Stage Company, which has been fearless in staging difficult works, has mounted a stripped-down version, focused on the man, Ray, or as he is now called, Peter; the girl, Una, grown up more or less; and the hate, recriminations and unresolved connections that still quiver between them.
Under David R. Gammons’ clinical direction, this production is the best example in a long time of drama needing little more than "two boards and a passion.'' The action of the play, set on designer Eric Levenson’s sterile recreation of a garbage-strewn, corporate lunchroom under white fluorescent lights, is about a confrontation between Una and Ray, 15 years after their illicit affair. Una has found where Ray is working by seeing his picture in a trade magazine, and she has come to find out the facts about the experience that is engraved on her psyche. Ray, now called Peter, has taken a new name and life since serving his sentence.
What follows would be mere pornography, given its graphic details as the characters relive that period in their lives, if the two actors were less convincing in mining the subtext of Harrower’s spare dialogue, the legacy of 20th century stage language developed by Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, and David Mamet. Poetic in its distillation of the human condition, but economic in its vocabulary, Harrower employs the lines to mask the characters’ feelings, then to disclose them in a rush, to cover the secrets and lies, and then to spill them out.
Scituate resident Bates Wilder strips to his soul playing Peter, trying to explain his actions to Una, but equally to himself. As he veers between belligerence, apologies, half-truths and crying jags, he takes on the many hues of a psychologically complex yet pathetic figure. He never quite convinces himself, or Una, that he understands his actions were wrong.
Marianna Bassham, in a tour-de-force performance for an actress better known locally as a Shakespearean performer, also ricochets between personalities, one moment seemingly trapped in a 12-year-old mindset, at other times bent on revenge. Her reversals are swift, but other times less so, as if the actuality of the event needed more than 15 years to sink into her consciousness.
The play, clocking in at 100 minutes, no intermission, is not perfect. It’s too long and repetitive in spots, making the viewer squirm as the playwright takes no chances on nailing the message, despite an ambiguous ending.
The image of the title, "Blackbird, '' is as disconcerting as the relationship between Una and Ray, making one think of birds of prey pecking at the vital organs of road-kill. But, as difficult as it is to watch the situation unravel, it is even harder to look away. I can guarantee that the issues between these people, coupled with the stories we’ve read in the press about sexual predators and the damage they inflict, yet enhanced by two virtuoso performances, will keep "Blackbird'' with you long after the stage lights come down.
BLACKBIRD Written by David Harrower. Performed by the Speakeasy Stage Company at Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont St., through March 21. Tickets: $30. Call 617-933-8600 or visit www.BostonTheatreScene.com.