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Blackbird: Beyond Law & Order

December 18, 2008

blackbirdLast night, Tara and I had the fine privilege of seeing the Studio Theatre’s production of David Harrower’s Blackbird, catching it just in time before it closes this weekend. My only wish is that the show was continuing longer, simply so we could recommend it to more people.

While some articles and reviews have remained coy about the play’s central premise, I don’t think it’s giving away too much to describe it. (In fact, I think it might be unfair for people to attend without such knowledge; even knowing in advance a little about the plot, we found it tough to watch, so I can’t imagine the experience of audience members going in unawares or expecting, say, a Beatles musical.) Blackbird charts, in excruciatingly real time, a conversation between Ray and Una, a man and woman who’d had a sexual relationship fifteen years before — when he was 40 and she was 12. 

Yeah: 12.

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Their conversation is (as you might imagine) not a happy one, and yet it’s also one that’s full of surprises, both for the audience and for each of the participants, who’ve had parts of their respective stories hidden from the other over the years. As a playwright, Harrower is top-notch — in the individual exchanges of dialogue, in the sometimes lengthy monologues, and most importantly in the overall movement of the play, whose emotional shifts and nuances seem perfectly orchestrated. Even the scenes of silence and inaction — one in particular stands out, Una alone in the room — have a sense of momentum building, of changes afoot. 

Both of the leads were terrific as well: heart-breakingly so. At one point, in the midst of one of Una’s monologues, Ray sits on a chair, silent, looking away from her. Tara and I had somehow been given front-row seats, and Jerry Whiddon, the actor playing Ray, was sitting so close I could have touched him, and was staring at times directly at me — and yet not staring at me, of course, staring somewhere beyond me or, more accurately still, somewhere inward. So completely in character was he that I felt I was intruding somehow on one man’s private pain. As Una, Lisa Joyce also amazed — capturing, as Tara said, a pitch-perfect blend of defiance and vulnerability. She has the last word — or rather last sound — in the play, and the rawness of her emotion there and throughout was devastating.

both_sq_webI couldn’t help but be intrigued by a couple of Joyce’s credits in the playbill — particularly her TV appearances in Law & Order and Law & Order: SUV and the fact that she originated the role of Christina in Adam Rapp’s Red Light Winter. Throughout last night’s play, I kept thinking of how differently a show like Law & Order would treat this storyline; even as that show tries to explore (and perhaps sometimes exploit) provocative and sometimes disturbing subject matter, there’s generally a moralistic center to those storylines — a simple, traditional, and pervasive sense of judgement, of right and wrong and the line in between. In Blackbird, easy judgements and simple morality are, frankly, shot to hell. And as for Joyce’s other credit mentioned above: Despite all its potential “heat” (on-stage nudity, simulated sex), Red Light Winter was at its core a cold piece of work, but Blackbird — in addition to the white-hot intensity of the confrontation — is also warm and emotional, across a broad range of emotions. At its core lies a love story, which is, of course, what’s so truly provocative and disturbing about the play. And so unexpectedly rewarding too. 

Halfway through the performance, I looked over at Tara and saw that she wasn’t looking at either of the actors on stage, wasn’t quite looking at the stage at all, as if what was happening up there was too troubling to watch directly. We were, as I mentioned, in the front row, and I worried for a moment that Tara felt trapped there, that she didn’t want to be there, that she might simply stand up and leave. After it was over we talked about stopping for a drink, but the play’s emotional aftereffect was ultimately too much and we headed instead for the car and the ride home. But despite that intensity during and after the show, both of us agreed that Blackbird was the best piece of theater either of us has seen in D.C.

In short, it’s not an easy play, but it’s definitely one not to be missed. And the Studio — with this production as well as its own recent productions of Red Light Winter and of Neil LaBute’s This Is How It Goes and of Bryony Lavery’s Frozen — continues to prove itself the most daring, most confident and most relentlessly interesting theater in the D.C. area.

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