Opened May 2, 2007 at American Conservatory Theater
ACT ruffles feathers with controversial Blackbird drama
two [1/2] stars Provocative
David Harrower’s Blackbird, now at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater, is part of what you might call “the theater of discomfort.’’
The goal of this type of theater seems to be the instigation of controversy, which can play out in several ways. In the best instance, audience members are challenged by what they see and are spurred to lively discussion and debate.
Another scenario has people being disgusted and angered to the point of stomping out of the theater or canceling their season subscription.
There will likely be more of the former than the latter with “Blackbird’’ because director Loretta Greco’s production is solid and sensitive, with fine performances from her two actors, Steven Culp and Jessi Campbell.
The provocative topic of this British play is pedophilia. Fifteen years prior to the start of the play, Ray (Culp), then 40 years old and at a difficult point in his life, had a months-long affair with Una (Campbell), who was 12 at the time.
Ray served three years and seven months in prison, changed his name to Peter, relocated and attempted to move on with his life.
By some strange stroke of fate (or the playwright’s pen), Una discovered Ray’s whereabouts and decided to confront him at his place of work.
That’s where we are when the bright flash of fluorescent light reveals Una and Ray, standing in a nondescript, garbage-strewn conference room (set by Robert Brill, lights by Russell H. Champa). They stare at each other, with fear, panic and agitation marking their faces.
It’s about 15 minutes into this 90-minute one-act play that we get any mention of Una and Ray’s past relationship, but from then on we get all the sordid details – ALL of them.
There’s no way in 90 minutes that the complex issues of childhood sexuality, adult responsibility, child abuse and the nature of love can be dealt with in any way other than in outline form. And that’s what Blackbird feels like – an outline for a more fully developed play of more length and depth.
As it is, Blackbird is a charged evening that provokes more questions than answers.
Harrower plays with our sympathies by trying to make a Ray a compassionate pedophile who swears he’s “not one of them’’ and that Una was special, the only child he ever desired.
Una goes from angry and vengeful to sexy and confident to scared and clinging. Such a wide range of emotional states makes her a tricky character. Though Campbell burns with intensity, Una seems more fictional than Ray – a vessel for debate topics more than a flesh-and-blood person.
Culp’s Ray is a study in contrasts. He has perpetrated one of the worst crimes imaginable, and he knows it. But in his mind, he paid the price and deserves another shot at life.
Harrower is careful to point out that Ray’s crime and punishment occurred before the passage of laws creating a public register of sex offenders, which helps explain how Ray is able to make such a clean start.
Una’s sudden appearance is an attempt at what? To derail Ray’s rebuilt life? To gain closure? Harrower suggests that love may have been part of the equation 15 years ago. It definitely was for Una, who was devastated by Ray’s abandonment of her. But the inevitable dramatic catharsis is too easily won.
Harrower displays intelligence and dramatic flair, but in cramming the play with so many issues and then leaving so much mysterious, he makes the drama more about him as a writer than about the characters themselves.
That bleeds the soul from the play. Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive and Martin Moran’s The Tricky Part both dealt with child sexual abuse, and both managed to do it with soul.
Blackbird raises difficult issues, takes surprising turns and asks us to create a whole play from dramatic pieces that don’t fall together. There’s plenty of flash, but no sustained illumination.
For information on Blackbird visit www.act-sf.org.