Sunday, January 18, 2009

Blackbird, Dobama

(Alyssa Weldon and Joel Hammer)

Lots of different kinds of relationships go bad, but none are more vexing than romantic entanglements, since they involve not just the mind and emotions, but the heart and libido as well. And those complications are multiplied enormously when the female is 12 years of age and the male is 40.

Of course, it is wildly incorrect to call something romance when it is obviously child abuse. But it is not wrong to consider the profound, colliding emotions that such a relationship can produce. And that is what happens, with often chilling immediacy, in Blackbird now at Dobama. This play by David Harrower, which won “best new play” awards in Scotland and England, dares to explore this controversial subject and leave the audience with no simple resolutions.

Peter, a 50-something middle manager at a non-descript company, occupying an anonymous one-story building, is visited by Una, a young woman in her late twenties. She calls him Ray and clearly has serious issues on her mind, which he tries to deflect to no avail.

Soon, we learn that Ray was Peter’s real, former name, and that he had had a months-long sexual relationship with Una 15 years before, when she was a pre-teen. At the time, Ray lived a few doors away and met Una at her own home, after being invited to a barbecue by her father.

Una now confronts Ray in the litter-strewn break room of Ray’s company: she, swerving from coyness to sarcasm to rage and he, lashing out defensively and then retreating. Una claws at Ray, trying to make him feel the hurt she felt back then, particularly on the night when he seemed to abandon her and the secret affair was revealed and prosecuted.

In a well-crafted 80 minutes, the play soon takes on the aspects of ritual dance, as we recognize that each of these people is frozen in time, to some degree. After Ray served a few years in prison, he changed his name and took the job he has now; she suffered years of ostracism in her community and then stumbled on his picture in a magazine by accident.

The performances under the sensitive direction of Scott Plate are remarkably intelligent and believable, but fall short of spectacular. As Ray, the excellent Joel Hammer gives full vent to his aggressive, controlling side as he repeatedly attempts to force Una into submission or silence. But he doesn’t fully reveal Ray’s softer or more accessible side, the one that would have given 12-year-old Una the comfort zone she would have needed to continue the relationship.

As Una, slim Alyssa Weldon is ideal physically for this devilishly complex part, since you can easily picture her as a young girl with stars in her eyes as an older man pays attention to her. But she seems to skate through early moments without a clear focus on her character’s needs. However, she hits her stride during a monologue that describes the fateful night when everything fell apart, and it is truly disturbing.

In a play this delicate, even small discrepancies become noticeable. One of those is the set, which is so overly littered with trash from the start, on a long table and all across the floor, it looks more like the day after Woodstock than a room in any functioning company. As a result, when Ray explodes later and dumps trash cans out, the room doesn’t look much different and any metaphorical message is thereby muted.

This lacerating play concludes in a way that leaves it most uncertain whether Ray has changed his ways or not, or that Una will be able to function normally in the future. That gives the audience something to chew on for the remainder of the evening. And maybe for a few days after that.

Through February 9, produced by
Dobama Theatre, at the Cleveland Play House,
8500 Euclid Avenue, 216-932-3396

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