‘Blackbird’ shocking, mesmerizing

Madeleine Lambert as Una, Jim O'Brien as Ray. Madeleine Lambert as Una, Jim O'Brien as Ray.

Madeleine Lambert as Una, Jim O'Brien as Ray.

Madeleine Lambert as Una, Jim O’Brien as Ray.

“Shock” is the first word of dialogue you hear in “Blackbird,” the harrowing drama now being performed at The Gamm Theatre, and it’s apt: this is a play that will shock, disturb and unsettle you. But that’s what great drama is designed to do, to purge the horrific from our souls and shake up our empathy in order to examine hard topics. It is a deceptively simple play, as nothing much happens to the two characters other than a conjuring up of a shared and extremely disturbing past. In “Blackbird” a young woman confronts the man she had a sexual affair with when she was 12.
The experience of watching “Blackbird” is akin to seeing a blinding white-hot light gleaming from the utter darkness and what we witness is no less than a ritual of exorcising the darkest secrets of the soul. No easy task and much of the power of this lies within Playwright David Harrower’s grand command of dramatic language; his words, cutting, poetic, sly and visceral manage to speak eloquently about the unspeakable.
The play takes place, appropriately enough, behind closed doors, in the barren factory break room where Una has, many years after the incident, tracked Ray down. This barren little place with refuse spilling out of a trashcan reflects their own inner wastelands, an empty and ugly space that cannot contain dirty little secrets. As Una and Ray examine the deep wound of the soul that binds their pasts together Harrower’s gouge of life drama depicts the deep damage contained within both the ravaged and the ravager.
As profoundly disturbing as this subject matter is, we in the audience are rapt to bear witness, the effect leaves us both mesmerized and shaken. This is driven by the urgent direction of Tony Estrella that maintains a constant tension throughout, figuratively gripping us by the back of the neck and pulling us into the midst of this tragedy. Though this strident storytelling is entirely truthful it leaves little room for nuance, a quality especially needed in a play where motivations are murky, connections between characters are complex and blurry buried memories are slowly brought into focus. I watched riveted and fascinated, but also felt that I was always witnessing a level of crescendo that needed to be gradually built up to.
The fascinating language structure of David Harrower’s play contains this emotional and stylistic swell however. Initial dialogue is spare, clipped and hints at hidden meaning, akin to the writing of Harold Pinter. The conversations between the two then become more naturalistic before exploding into two soul-searing soliloquies. That’s a lot for two actors to do while both baring and trying to conceal their darkest secrets and each achieve this task with considerable aplomb.
Jim O’Brien plays Ray and O’Brien is one of those actors whose inherent humanity cannot help but radiate from his onstage persona. The fact that such a likable actor plays such a reprehensible person induces an appropriate amount of uncomfortable squirming and adds considerably to the onstage tension. Beneath his thin veneer of seemingly sincere plausible deniability hints of evil impulses always seem to lurk; it is as if he is at all times trying to digest the guilt that churns within him, much to his own disgust.
Madeline Lambert is sharply strident and furiously forthright as Una, there’s a laser-like intensity that shapes her ends onstage. Ms. Lambert makes Una a woman who has pushed her victimization deep down into the recesses of her soul, her vulnerability long ago turned callused and brittle. We understand the hardened and isolated woman she’s become and in her heartfelt soliloquy we fully appreciate the lost little girl she was. Both actors here truly come into their own during their respective soliloquies, revealing at long last what each has spent a lifetime concealing.
Ally Gower is an utterly real and delightful presence playing a young girl, a role about which, for the sake of the story, I can say no more.
Jessica Hill’s highly realistic set design is spot-on, in addition to the break room this factory interior boasts huge metal cylinders, flashing red lights and the hint of a turbine created by Matthew Terry’s lighting effects. This does lead me to one minor quibble however. The wall at the back of the break room includes a door that must be slammed from time to time. When this occurs, that entire wall shakes and quivers. A small enough thing perhaps but it had the effect of taking me out of the carefully constructed world depicted onstage and some solid bracing would have reinforced the onstage realism.
But these minor problems do not diminish the whole of this heart-shaking production that is, from start to finish, an excoriating examination of the everlasting effects, great and small, of an evil action. That this subject matter is not for all audiences is obvious and easily said, what’s trickier is the emotional honesty that playwright Harrower has created for both of his characters. To his great credit Harrower has provided no easy resolution in the conventional dramatic sense. That the abuse that binds Una and Ray together is too horribly prevalent is a tragedy served by silence. “Blackbird” honestly and eloquently examines the horrible damage humans are capable of inflicting upon the innocent, but provides no easy answers because there are no easy answers. Some wounds never heal.

“Blackbird” at The Gamm Theatre, 172 Exchange Street, Pawtucket, now through June 1.

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