Somewhere in England, in a dismal, low-slung office building, there’s an equally dismal break room: long, crappy table; crappy metal chairs; ugly florescent lights; some battered lockers; food trash (crunched soda cans, takeout wrappers, paper cups) strewn around the floor like a gross metaphor.
It’s not much to look at, but this depressing bunker is ground zero for one of the more gripping, difficult dramas to hit a Seattle stage this year — and with plays like “Pass Over” in the running, it’s got serious competition. But “Blackbird,” David Harrower’s 2005, Olivier Award-winning play, currently staged at 18th and Union by White Rabbits Inc. and Libby Barnard, is a small, powerful, two-character nail bomb. It feels a little spoiler-y to even say this much, but the final 10 minutes drew sharp, genuine gasps I haven’t heard in an audience for a long time.
Una is 27. Ray is 55. They haven’t spoken in 15 years, since she was 12 and he was 40 — and went to prison for their three-month sexual relationship. Now she’s tracked him down at the end of his workday, much to his shock and borderline panic, for a great reckoning in this little room.
But can we even use the word “relationship” in this case? How do we cope with the fact that Ray (Shawn Belyea) felt like they had something mutual, but has served his time, changed his name, and wants to move on? Or the fact that Una (Libby Barnard) was, in her words, “in love” with Ray, even sometimes thrilled with the “relationship,” and seems almost as furious with the rest of the world — and how it treated her after they found out — as she is with him? (After the trial, she tells Ray, her parents didn’t pack up the household and move: “To shame me. To punish me. So I’d be pointed at. And slapped in the street.”)
These are powder-keg questions, but this steely and unflinching production, directed by Paul Budraitis, keeps its nerve — even when we’re not sure we can do the same.
The intimacy of 18th and Union amplifies the effect, and the hyper-awareness of one’s fellow audience members. “This play deals with some intense subject matter,” co-producer Nik Doner announced at the top of the performance. “If you feel like you need to leave the show, please do. All clear?” He paused to visually confirm everyone got the message.
We’re not quite sure what Una wants out of this reunion — or whether Una even knows. “Can you tell me why you’re here?” Rays asks, clearly eager to get her out of his sight as quickly as possible. “What’ve you come here for?”
Una slides past the question. “Do they get breaks?” she asks about his co-workers. “Fag breaks? [Harrower is Scottish; he means cigarettes.] I don’t want people walking in here.”
“Blackbird” soldiers on as, bit by bit, one tells the other what happened, during those three months and afterward, from each of their perspectives. It’s tough material, made tougher because the more human the two become in our eyes, the more effectively they rouse dissonant feelings that do not pair well: simultaneous disgust and compassion, condemnation and bewilderment. If you show up to “Blackbird” knowing its premise, and what you already think about it, you may walk out the door not having changed your judgment — but the play dares us to keep unchanged feelings.
Barnard and Belyea give marvelously understated performances that seem, on the surface, devoid of any virtuosity — but that’s by design, and demands a subtler kind of genius. Budraitis and his cast show admirable restraint, keeping the production on stable ground, letting the text do the work of putting us off balance.
Belyea plays Ray as a man who has spent 15 years building his resolve to feel nothing but regret and remorse for what he did — while refusing to slide into a pit of self-pity and despair. He’s done his time, atoned for his sins, and should be able to put it all in the rearview mirror. “I’m living my life,” he tells Una. “I have every right. I can push it as far away as I… ” She begs to disagree.
Barnard does excellent work with a trickier performance, navigating Una’s more tempestuous relationship with the past, one she can’t leave — apparently, almost literally. She refuses to leave and refuses to be erased, keeping Ray squirming on a bed of nails. Is she there for resolution? For revenge? To haunt him like a ghost? Or is she after something else, something even she can’t quite pinpoint?
There’s something distasteful about writers — even masterful ones — who play parlor games with combustible subjects like this, as if we’re their playthings, and our discomfort is their amusement.
But in “Blackbird,” Harrower — and Budraitis and Bernard and Belyea — seem to be after something more significant, asking us to take a good, hard look at the world around us, full of thorny, damaged people who keep creating more damage, but defy the pat diagnoses and categorization that the doctors and courts inflicted on both Una and Ray.
Or as Alice Munro, who has also written hauntingly about childhood sexual abuse, once put it: “The complexity of things — the things within things — just seems to be endless. I mean, nothing is easy, nothing is simple.”
“Blackbird” by David Harrower. Through June 15; White Rabbits Inc. at 18th and Union, 1406 18th Ave., Seattle; $15-$25; 206-937-6499, 18thandunion.org
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