Blackbird Soars at Hartford’s TheaterWorks

By Amy J. Barry

The stage set of Blackbird, a filthy fluorescent-lit lunchroom strewn with garbage in a generic office building, mirrors the human dynamic that unfolds upon it—not pretty and beyond messy.

David Harrower’s powerful one-act drama, which won England’s highest theatrical honor—the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play—is having its New England premiere at Theaterworks in downtown Hartford.

The TheaterWorks production of this engrossing and disturbing psychological drama is delivered with a wallop by Beth Wittig as Una and J. Tucker Smith as Ray, reunited after 15 years at Ray’s workplace for a reason that is revealed slowly and with much suspense through Amy Saltz’s concise direction.

Una and Ray dance around each other—he is clearly unhappy that she has tracked him down—until the shocking truth is quietly uncovered—Ray molested Una when she was 12 and he was her 40-year-old next-door neighbor.

We feel a sense of vicarious pleasure every time Ray, while trying to determine why Una has insisted on seeing him, picks up a handful of fast food wrappers and plastic cups and stuffs them into a trash can. We would like to imagine he will clean up the chaos and right the wrongs he’s caused, but instead, the more we learn about Ray and Una’s relationship, the more the scene in front of us unravels and like the floor beneath them, becomes even more cluttered and unclear.

We’re not sure why Una has decided to confront Ray after so much time has passed. Does she want an apology—or to offer forgiveness? Is she looking for answers to her questions? Is she plotting revenge? She doesn’t seem so sure, herself. Wittig as the lost and broken Una, transitions stunningly back and forth from a frightened and confused prepubescent girl to an angry and calculating young adult woman.

Smith scores equally high points with his performance as the middle-aged Ray who has served jail time, changed his name, and moved on with his life, while keeping it all in neat little boxes until Una arrives and forces him down an unsavory Memory Lane.

If the crime of pedophilia isn’t disturbing enough, Ray’s explanations of his behavior go a step darker and deeper when he insists that his actions were not premeditated and that it was truly love, not perversion that caused him to do something so despicable as have sex with a 12-year-old.

Rich with ambiguity, we see both characters through a variety of lenses. Ray appears in one moment as a creepy social misfit and in another as an affable guy who’s learned from his mistakes. Una strikes us as an innocent victim, a promiscuous “Lolita,” or a bit of both. It’s enough to make anyone squirm.

A sharp twist of events at the conclusion of the play only adds to the ambiguity of the situation, making us question whether Ray is sincere or a pathological liar, and realize just how distorted the distinction between lover and predator is in their relationship.

Blackbird is short but certainly not sweet. This may be the most intensely moving hour-and-a-half you’ll spend sitting in a theater and the troublesome questions the play raises will follow you long after the lights go up.

Blackbird continues through May 11 at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl Street, Hartford. Due to demand, three Sunday evening performances have been added to the schedule (April 27, May 4, and May 11). For tickets and information call 860-527-7838 or online www.theaterworkshartford.org.

(Appeared in Shore Publishing Community Newspapers’ Living sections, 4/24/08)

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