"Blackbird' by Theatre Exile (2nd Review)

The power of human emotion (for better or worse)

Bunting, Zinkel: A hideous conflict rendered almost desirable. (Photo: Cory Frisco.)
Bunting, Zinkel: A hideous conflict rendered almost desirable. (Photo: Cory Frisco.)

In my late 20s I began a relationship with a precocious and musically gifted woman in her late teens. Within a week of my ending the relationship— essentially, I abandoned her— she attempted to steal my dog, had me evicted from my condo, and tried to run me over with a car.

So I harbor some understanding of the terror that Ray— the male protagonist in David Harrower's Blackbird— feels when confronted 15 years later by a woman whose testimony had him thrown in prison when their relationship ended. But unlike my case, the age differences in Harrower's play are more extreme: during the summer of their sexual relationship, Una was 12 and he 40.

Happily, the usual moral recriminations that accompany adult sexual abuse of children don't form the major focus of this play. Instead, director Joe Canuso's superb and brutally honest rendering presents the immoral seduction— like Humbert Humbert's in Lolita, of a weak adult by a child with "suspiciously adult yearnings"— as a way to use the moral issues in order to explore more universal themes of human love and emotion.

Trapped in a cage

At the beginning of Blackbird, we find Ray believing he has moved on after three years in jail, changing his name (from Peter), finding a middle-management job, and forming a relationship with a woman his own age. Then Una, having seen a photo of him in a trade magazine, arrives at his workplace, pulling him out of a meeting and into an employee break room, effectively trapping him in the cage of Matt Saunders's sharply detailed set. And for 80 minutes, Paul Moffitt's harsh overhead fluorescent lighting exposes them to us and each other, first through recriminations and later through the painful, previously unspoken recollections of one summer night that ruined both their lives.

"I don't have to stay here and listen," Ray tells her, clearly terrified as Una angrily spits out her lines in abrasively aspirated staccato sentences (sounding too Mametesque, and marking Canuso's only directorial blunder). She wants to know "how many other 12-year-olds have you had sex with" and what Ray did with his photos of her; she makes it quite clear that, in an age of Megan's Law, she could repossess his entire life. Although it's not clear initially what Una wants or why she's there, as their verbal sparring unfolds, their conflicting views shatter the lies each has told in order to survive through a difficult stretch of their lives.

"I was never one of those" —that is, a pedophile— Ray insists. "I never fit the criteria," which she snidely derides. As they talk across the room for the first 20 minutes, it's painful even to notice the distance between them. Observing Pearce Bunting in the role of Ray is something like witnessing an auto accident: His tortured visage and perpetually guilt-slumped posture is both painful to watch and too fascinating to stop watching. Eventually he runs off the stage a thoroughly battered and destroyed individual.

The secret history of our relationships

When Una ultimately learns the truth of Ray's abandonment of her, it's a crippling moment to watch Julianna Zinkel's face absorb what Harrower's script makes painfully clear: Every relationship has its secret history; like the original tragedy of Oedipus, no one ever possesses complete knowledge of a situation until it's too late to make the right choice.

Director Canuso and this cast deserve tremendous credit for making a hideous conflict seem almost desirable. Both he and Zinkel understand that making Una into a victim (in TV "movie of the week" fashion) would have been not merely insincere but also uninteresting. Ray, similarly, is presented as a man filled with regrets— but his affair with Una isn't one of them. This portrayal of two complex and very human characters ultimately enables us to believe the otherwise incredible reconnection of the two toward the play's end.

I think that everyone has the sense even when going through them that some experiences in life are unrepeatable. Canuso and his two actors make us feel both the beauty of this knowledge and the terror of loss. Consequently, from a morally unconscionable subject they show the transcendent, universal power of human emotions, no matter how misguided they may be.

Blackbird shows Una and Ray to have loved each other in a way that neither has been able to replicate with anyone else. We don't have to like it.

As for that young woman who tried to run me over years ago? Much to my family's chagrin, she's now my best friend. The ashes of memory burn even while giving birth to something new and different. Sometimes, like Una and Ray, we just need a great theatrical moment to remind us.

To read another review by Dan Rottenberg, click here.
To read another review by Robert Zaller, cliick here.
For a further discussion by SaraKay Smullens, click here.
To read a response, click here.

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