A Tale of ‘Trashed’ Lives at TheaterWorks

By Geary Danihy

There’s a certain claustrophobic quality to Blackbird, David Harrower’s unsettling drama currently at TheaterWorks in Hartford. This two-character exercise in an “out of the past” confrontation is set in a cell-like employee lunchroom that throughout most of the play is littered with trash. As the harsh, unforgiving lights snap on at the start of the play, Ray (J. Tucker Smith) stands facing Una (Beth Wittig – making her professional debut). Like an etherized butterfly pinned to a board, he cannot escape her gaze. He is caught, and so is the audience, as Una proceeds to lead Ray on an, at times, almost surreal trip down a morally tainted memory lane.

There is more than meets the eye to the trash that litters the set, designed by Luke Hegel-Cantarella to enhance the stark, unremitting game being played on the stage, for it is a metaphor for lives “trashed” by a relationship the two had when Una was just 12 years old, as well as a measure of the impact Una’s visit has on Ray who, for most of the one-act play, attempts to clean up the room as he is verbally assaulted by Una. It all comes to naught, however, and in an absolutely chilling scene near the play’s conclusion, Ray kicks over the trash barrel and the two gleefully strew the stage with garbage and then proceed to wallow in it, recapturing the debased nature of their former relationship.

The driving force behind this confrontation is Una, now a woman in her early 20s. It is a demanding, multi-layered role that Wittig handles superbly as she switches, sometimes almost instantaneously, from a psychologically damaged young woman to a concerned, child-like “lover” to a tart-tongued avenger, all the while offering the possibility that she might suddenly explode or burst into fire, consuming them both. She runs the emotional gamut from sly humor to abject, sobbing terror as she confronts, cajoles, attacks and flirts with Ray, keeping both him and the audience off balance. It’s an admirable performance that bodes well for Wittig’s career.

Smith plays quite well against Wittig’s controlled mania, often almost tongue-tied as Wittig shifts from one persona to another, unsure of where she will veer next, frantically picking up trash as her words pursue him. He is, initially, in an apparently morally untenable position, but as the drama unfolds the nature of the “abuse” he was sent to jail for, and Una’s involvement in it, becomes less a matter of black and white. As the two seek to understand what really happened and to come to some determination about responsibility, the moral axis shifts a bit and a certain amount of sympathy builds for Smith’s character, sympathy that makes the final moments of the play all the more harrowing.

In creating his two characters, Harrower does not take the easy way out. There are subtleties within subtleties in Una and Ray’s former relationship that the playwright deftly weaves together to form a web that neither of the characters can escape, all the more so because it is a web of their own willful making.

Crisply directed by Amy Saltz, Blackbird slowly tightens its grip on the audience members’ minds and emotions so that those watching soon share Ray’s fears that they are confronted by an unstable time bomb (as mentioned, this growing association with Ray’s character is craftily manipulated by Harrower). Early in the play there’s some business with a water bottle Una carries in her purse. When Ray says that he needs a drink and pulls the bottle from Una’s purse, one woman in the audience whispered, as if in warning, “It’s acid!” Now that’s involvement!

Blackbird is an emotionally, intellectually and psychologically challenging play, and if you are up to accepting the challenge you will have an evening at the theater you will not soon forget. I know I won’t.

Blackbird runs through Sunday, May 11. For tickets or more information call 860-527-7838 or go to www.theaterworkshartford.org.

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