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Unblurring the lines

An unsettling 'Blackbird' at the Gamm
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  May 14, 2014

PAST, TENSE O'Brien and Lambert. [Photo by Peter Goldberg]

Tough to take, this subject. In David Harrower’s Blackbird, we follow the aftermath, 15 years later, of a man having had sex with a 12-year-old girl when he was 40.

The Sandra Feinstein-Gamm production (through June 1) is being directed with careful pacing and attention to nuance by Tony Estrella, and performed with full commitment by the two actors.

One of the most impressive touches is before the play starts, when the two characters are standing blurred and immobile behind the background frosted glass of Jessica Hill’s set design, before the stage snaps to black for a moment and we begin. Character summaries don’t get much more precise and economical than that.

Una (Madeleine Lambert) has come to the workplace of Ray (Jim O’Brien) to confront him. It’s after hours, so there is no one else to disturb if she raises her voice. He goes by the name Peter now, so she wouldn’t have discovered him if she hadn’t recently seen his photograph in a publication.

This isn’t an entirely successful play, sometimes spinning its wheels in filling out its intermissionless 90 minutes, especially at the beginning. I couldn’t accept as real all the conversational delaying tactics of the opening few minutes. In such confrontational circumstances, you have to get to the point, people. Una could have made short work of Ray’s indignant anger over her showing up where he works — and, for that matter, on what planet does someone accused of being a monster get to be uppity? Right away, a little verbal slap upside the head by his accuser could have adjusted his perspective on the situation.

Ray is hardly unaware of how serious this meeting is going to be. He spends a lot of time arguing with her about taking the discussion outside, or at least keeping the door open, which she wants closed because of a draft . So he’s suspicious that she might want to be setting him up, and is nervous about a large purse she has brought. She finds his concern amusing and jokes that a bottle of water in the purse is acid, a jest that we see, when he casually takes a swig from it, has relaxed him a bit.

Back then he spent more than three years in prison for his crime, treated as you’d expect by other prisoners, which still was better than her father killing him, which he understandably wanted to do. Hostile, he calls her visit “pointless,” since he feels he has paid for his actions and himself suffered emotionally. He is married and simply wants to go about his normal life, not be plunged back into the past. “How the hell is this good? Tell me,” he demands.

Excellent question. After all, it is how Una has adjusted to her experiences as a child that we are more interested in. She says that she wrote about 100 letters to him in prison, never sending them but still reading “the best ones.” Yet she has not had closure, though apparently he has.

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