Steve Hendrickson and Rebecca Brooksher; photo: Rick Teller
Blackbird by David Harrower, Directed by Sheila Siragusa.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"How the Hell is it any good?"
A little 12 year-old girl with "suspiciously adult yearnings" and a lonely man of 41 meet, fall in lust and have an affair which scars them both internally for life. That happens fifteen years before the lights come up on them in David Harrower’s scathing and bitter drama, Blackbird, currently on stage at the Chester Theater Company’s stage in Chester, Massachusetts. For 93 minutes, in a lunch room in a medical manufacturing plant somewhere else, not here, these two former lovers have a reunion of sorts and try to sort out all of the dirty laundry and sundry garbage that surrounds their lives. The angst and the emotional turmoil is what this play is about and the people, ultimately, don’t matter. What matters is the hurt they bring with them, the hurt allowed to explode before us, and then the hurt left behind them.
Playwright Harrower won an Olivier Award with this one-act event and if that was due to the essence of being a fly on the wall - one that is trapped inside a mason jar perhaps and unable to fly away no matter how hard he tries - then "Bravo" for the jar. I had the privilege, and I cannot stress that word enough, of being allowed to see the first public performance of this new production on the outskirts of the Berkshires. Steve Hendrickson, so well remembered and admired for his work at this theater last season in Mercy of a Storm, took on the difficult role of Ray, aka Peter, with only four days rehearsal. His first night performance was a revelation. He could have made a hundred errors; I wouldn’t know - wouldn’t care. His performance of this role is completely and utterly sensational.
He stammers and staggers and falls to pieces and pulls himself together, and loves, and hates, and lusts and relates his story his way and lies and lies again and tells the truth only to have it fall on deaf ears. He takes us to the highest and lowest places in the human psyche, all the while reviling himself in the big picture and lauding his own praises in the minutia. Hendrickson inhabits the part. Ray, the seducer of a child, the abductor of that child, having served a short but horrific time in prison has taken on a new identity, forged a new, better life but stands to lose it all when the girl shows up unexpectedly. He is shaken to the roots of his soul and that soul is instantly exposed in the hands of this actor. It doesn’t really matter if an actor has two years to prepare or ten minutes, it seems, when the part is so clearly and unmistakably written and the actor is such a good, instinctive player. Worth twice the price of a ticket is this stellar turn by a consummate professional.
Playing opposite him with all the fury and fire and dispassionate understanding that can be mustered in a single player is actress Rebecca Brooksher as Una. Dressed to kill - or to seduce - this young woman enters a room and can never leave it. Her presence leaves marks everywhere, impressions that cannot be wiped away easily. That is Una. She is a physical convoy of sexual magma, a molten mess of perfume, lace and leather boots. Brooksher can play the sweetness, the anger and the physical passion with equal aplomb. She handles quixotic changes in mood with alacrity. Just watching her non-stop high-end portrayal is exhausting; I cannot imagine what it would be like to be her playing this role.
Regina Garcia’s simple set is most effective and the costumes by Charles Schoonmaker are just right for these characters. There is a long wait in too much music designed by Tom Shread at the beginning of the play, but that could change.
Director Sheila Siragusa has given her two players the most natural and honest of direction in this piece. There was only one instance when I saw the director’s hand and that one ended quickly as the actress clambered down off a bench against a wall. It’s a bench that really doesn’t belong in this room, and now, in memory, seems only to have been placed there for the incident in the play. It doesn’t work or seem necessary otherwise. Without having much time with the actor (four days is nothing, even in summer theater) Siragusa has led him into a memory play with no scenes, but just the memories, that call up all of the worst in a human being. In this case that "worst" is inextricably tied to the boldest and most loving of human emotions. So intertwined are they that the director and actor have had to bind them together with hard, harsh, personal gestures for Ray to use whenever he tells truths, half-truths or near-lies about himself. It’s a brilliant touch.
For Brooksher’s Una the director has gone in an opposite direction, providing her with every opportunity to use the grand gesture that seems wrong, but is indeed just right. The actress has taken these specially directed moments and lets them set the air around them aflame. Several times I found myself blinking away the harsh electric light of such a gesture.
But Harrower has left us with an inconclusive stopping point. Wracking my brain for a better ending, I could not come up with one, and perhaps there’s a message in that: "some things never end."
In a season that has already mixed heavy drama (The Caretaker), light drama (Candida), quirky drama (The Atheist) and lack-o-drama (Spelling Bee) into the theatrical arena, we now have to add high drama with Blackbird. This is not an easy play to sit through, I warn you, but you won’t see such skilled performances in anything like this again this season - especially now that "Virginia Woolf" (Richard Chamberlain? Really?) has been cancelled, at any rate.
Blackbird plays at the Chester Theater through July 13. Tickets are $24.50 - $29.50. For schedules and tickets call the box office at 413-354-7771 or find them online at www.chestertheatre.org.
This theater has a new policy: Buy a ticket and if you want to see the show again, you can have another ticket free. The idea behind this is that actors change and grow and an audience might want to see how the characters develop over the course of a run. Of course, you can also convince another friend to join you and buy a ticket. And why not!