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Updated: Jun 18

There are no easy outs in the mesmerizing C&R Productions revival of David Harrower’s “Blackbird”—not for its two characters locked in brutal psychological warfare, nor for anyone in the audience wishing for a moral framework that makes sense of their tortured relationship.

That’s because Harrower’s unsettling drama artfully peels the labels faster than we can apply them to the tense reunion between a man and woman whose past sexual encounter occurred when she was 12 and he was 40. Now normally, that qualifies as Pedophilia. But then again…maybe not?

The production is playing at Chance Theater June 13th through the 22nd and is directed by Christa Havenhill (“Rabbit Hole,” “The Full Monty”). You might say the set is, or was, originally designed by Christopher Scott Murillo and used for the recent production of “Alma” at Chance. The unit was commandeered for this production, underwent a total makeover and that sweet, domestic setting quickly morphed into a typical factory lunchroom for “Blackbird.”

“Blackbird,” which took the Olivier Award in London for best new play in 2007, is an immensely powerful yet heartrending drama of criminal love that leaves many people shaking. It may even knock the breath out of you.

But let's get back to the plot. He was 40, she was 12. Flash forward fifteen years. Una (Dakota Wolf, "West Side Story," "Noises Off") has now tracked down Ray (Ron Hastings, "Fun Home," "Ragtime") to that dingy lunchroom of the faceless company where he works. But is this a confrontation between victim and predator? Avenger and penitent? Or star-crossed lovers? Una and Ray don’t seem sure themselves as they ricochet between conflicted emotions.

As the characters begin to speak, we perceive that Una is a vivacious and sensual young woman. Ray is now 56 and is some kind of middle manager. Before long, we learn about their sexual relationship when Una was only 12. But it takes some time before the details begin to unfold. It's a voyage of discovery with twists, turns and reversals that appear with incessant regularity—moments of calm when they laugh, almost playing together, in a kind of child-like fashion. Then, without warning, everything explodes in draining confrontational sequences. Ms. Wolf’s entire body shimmies with righteous sarcasm and uncontrolled rage, while Mr. Hastings is like an aggrieved, aging prizefighter backed into a corner of the ring.

What is gradually exposed is how the past still lives in the present for both of them. Ray has coped by totally erasing the past from his memory: he hotly denies several times that he is one of “them,” one of those men fatally attracted to children. No, this was a single moment of madness, a terrible mistake that almost wholly destroyed his life. He did his time for that mistake and he has painstakingly tried to put his life back together ever since. He will never transgress again. Una’s sudden unheralded appearance fills him with panic. He shoves her into the breakroom, terrified that she will be spotted by his workmates, that the shame that he has until now kept so secret will spill over his life like the trash over the room.

Una, on the other hand, has never forgotten. She thinks about what happened every day, and the events—their relationship, the prosecution and trial, her notoriety, her mother’s condemnation—have warped her life. She is lonely, promiscuous, prone to relationships with abusive men. But what has most wounded her becomes less clear as they talk. Was it the exploitation of her own nascent sexuality by an older man who should never have violated her trust? Was it her social isolation, as a victim of abuse? The way the language of police prosecution erased her own experience, so that she can no longer make sense of what happened? The moral condemnation of her own family?

Harrower corkscrews their conversation deeper and deeper into tabu areas, without ever tipping over into easy condemnation or exculpation. Neither Una nor Ray are able to withdraw from and contemplate this defining wound of their lives: we don’t know whether to believe Ray when he says he is no longer sexually attracted to children. And we don’t know whether Una’s desire for revenge is undermined by her even greater desire for Ray. The ambiguities are held in suspension all the way through the performance.

Both actors convincingly evoke the psychological scars and tormented legacy of their characters’ past. As Ray and Una warily circle each other, fumbling for just the right words to say, the chemistry and intensity build as their encounter becomes more visceral. Her eyes are wild and her legs wobbly, as he leads their stuttering steps with an angry, obdurate chin.

It’s definitely an intriguing, bravura performance, fully conveying the damage sustained by a girl who was sexualized way too young (twin sisters Catherine Last and Elizabeth Last both play The Girl).

When all is said and done, what “Blackbird” does is convince us, through a gradual current of persuasion, that the shared history of Ray and Una—which put him in jail and her on a path of self-destruction—is indeed a love story. And that this is the grimmest tragedy of all, one that they can neither willingly embrace nor even find words for.

Mr. Harrower (“Kill the Old Torture their Young,” “Lucky Box,” “Ciara”) has provided both Una and Ray with gorgeous, unsettling memory monologues about being lost in a claustrophobic village to which they escaped. And then, toward the end—Ms. Wolf seems utterly convincing as the frightened, determined preadolescent that Una once was.

Ms. Wolf has beautiful moments here. Note the surprised stillness that overtakes her when she admits that there were certain details of her relationship with Ray that she never divulged to the police. And throughout, Mr. Hastings is vibrantly ambiguous—a beleaguered and terrified mediocrity, made larger somehow by a monstrous act, whose deepest motives remain obscure, probably even to himself.

Suddenly, we feel the tug of the black hole in which she has been floating and floundering for a very long 15 years. Now if only both of them could take back that gaping sense of absence, that wound that will always remain open in two irreparably damaged lives.

Maybe the word for this production is unflinching. The devastating ending strips away all our skins of moral protection, leaving us with unpalatable open wounds. We are given no maps with which to navigate it, no place in which to hide from its implications. It reminds us of the unnegotiable complexity of human pain and desire. It’s brilliant, necessary theatre.



Blackbird plays on the Fyda-Mar Stage at Chance Theater, June 13, 2024 — June 22, 2024. Approximately One Hour, 30 Min., with no intermission. For tickets:

Chris Daniels

Arts & Entertainment Reviewer

The Show Report


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