By Philip Pearce
TEN YEARS BEFORE #MeToo exploded into the headlines, Scots playwright David Harrower won an Olivier best new play award with a script called Blackbird about an enraged sexual abuse victim who seeks out and confronts her long-lost abuser. PacRep has just opened a powerful new version of the play. The direction and acting are top flight. The text sometimes makes you want to wince but you can’t stop watching every dark moment of the story.
A girl named Una storms into the workplace of a man named Ray. Fifteen years ago he was arrested, tried and imprisoned for a consensual sexual relationship he had with her, when he was forty and she was twelve. Released from jail, he’s changed his name to Peter, moved to a different town, taken on an identity carefully crafted to avoid the traits of chronic sex abusers outlined in pop psychology books. She tracks him down from a magazine ad for his medical supply firm. They meet and do battle in the soulless and littered locker-room canteen of Ray’s workplace. She wants him to fill in gaps in what she knows and doesn’t know about what happened fifteen years ago. He wants at all cost to protect his shaky new identity and lifestyle.
We seem to be on the verge of a highly charged feminist attack against a blundering middle-brow abuser. But “seem“ is the operative word throughout Blackbird. The play’s power comes from the way this couple’s unfettered explosions of rage and disillusionment are offered with a clinical detachment that lets them explode without reaction or comment. Harrower refuses to launch attacks, choose sides, hand out value judgments or score moral points against these two flawed humans. Their story is laid out with a cool balance that makes terms like “victim” and “abuser” meaningless.
Kenneth Kelleher directs like a conductor at work on a symphony. The thunderclouds of feeling burst with full-throated force, but the mood and volume shift and soften as Michael Ray Wisely’s anxious Ray and Tavi Carpenter’s angry Una begin to reflect more deeply on the pain and humiliation each has visited on the other. She shows up, all controlled rage, a desperate, determined and overdressed woman ready for a carefully planned attack on someone who has ruined her life but whom she still can‘t help finding attractive. His responses grow more and more like the struggles of a caged animal as he tries to play the successful department head of a prestigious business with an embarrassingly filthy staff canteen.
As they battle, it’s clear when, where and how their past sexual encounters took place. And it’s clear how their pathetic affair has left ugly, unhealed gashes in both of them. But areas of uncertainty hover above every new revelation. Ray and Una probe, accuse, justify their furtive couplings in an out-of-town boarding house. But who is telling the whole truth and when are they not telling it? Each needs to understand areas of mystery left unsolved when Ray was snatched away by the police and Una’s adolescent body was probed and pumped and analyzed as a piece of forensic sexual evidence. The clinical detail is searing, explicit and ugly.
The action eventually slows to a point where the couple seem to have exhausted the depths and shoals of their dark partnership. They seem ready to move on. In a surprise burst of black comedy they up-end all the trash cans and litter the sordid locker room with uncollected garbage in a kind of crazy death dance offered to a past that seems to have finally lost its power to destroy them. But “seems” is still the operative term. A third significant character, played by the gifted Colette Gsell, enters and things start to happen that suggest the possibility that everything that has happened so far may not really have been all that therapeutic. We may have been watching two wounded people relive the same ingrained attitudes and obsessions that caused their tragedy in the first place. Watch that last quarter of an hour and you look back and wonder.
Blackbird is the kind of show that raises questions and sometimes leaves the answers to you. I am as keen as anyone else on recreational theater. But if, even just occasionally, you buy a play ticket in the hope of something more than just a night of fun in Carmel, I doubt you’ll soon see anything that can match the raw power and realism of this production.
It continues at the Circle Theatre through May 27th.