Sunday, January 18, 2009


Must see, compelling, disturbing ‘BLACKBIRD’ at Dobama

Participating in the life changing experiences of the characters in Dobama’s ‘BLACKBIRD,’ in the intimate Studio Theatre of the Cleveland Play House, is a compelling and disturbing occurrence.

‘’BLACKBIRD,’ according to author David Harrower, was inspired, in part, by the real life story of Toby Studebaker, a former U.S. Marine who abducted a 12-year-old British girl in 2003. Though Studebaker seduced the girl via the internet, Harrower, in his play, changes the incident to a man who had a sexual experience with his pre-teen neighbor.

Harrower’s meticulous writing often consists of fragmented sentences, wordiness which signifies rambling of emotions instead of coherent thoughts, combativeness, conflicting ideas in the same speech, a slowly developing story that has the characters revealing details by describing incidents they seemingly know about, but really don’t. If you appreciate David Mamet plays, you’ll like Harrower’s works.

The play takes place fifteen years after the series of sexual incidents. Ray, the perpetrator, was convicted and sent to prison for six years, changed his name, and moved to another area. Una finds a picture of Ray in a trade magazine and traces him to his workplace.

The well-crafted script intentionally raises more questions than it answers. Why does she seek him out? Does she want to castigate him? Does she want to rekindle their “love?” Does she want to know why he abandoned her? Is Una mentally unstable, irrevocably damaged? Is it possible that a twelve-year old girl and a forty-year old man could fall in love with the adult not being guilty of abuse of power? Is Ray remorseful or a very clever criminal? Is he, was he, a pedophile? Did he take advantage of her, or was she wise beyond her years?

As Una tells the story of how she had to stay in the community as an object of public ridicule, Ray tells what he suffered in prison with the harsh treatment meted out by other prisoners to sex offenders. There is anger and hurt flying around as years of resentment are released and long unasked questions are answered.

The setting is a strewn lunchroom. Is the rubbish symbolic of the chaos of their lives because of the unfulfilled relationship? Is the trash representative of their messy feelings? Is the debris the residue of unfinished business?

The Dobama production, under the thoughtful direction of Scott Plate, is compelling. Plate has done his homework and seemingly understands the hidden underbelly of the author’s thoughts.

Both Joel Hammer (Ray) and Alyssa Weldon (Una) give exemplary performances. They inhabit their roles. The aren’t acting Ray and Una, they ARE Ray and Una. Uta Hagen, who portrayed Martha in the Broadway production of ‘WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF’ once said of portraying that role, “It’s like having a nervous breakdown every night.” The same must be true for Hammer and Weldon. They have to be psychologically and physically exhausted following each performance. These are portrayals that everyone should see.

‘BLACKBIRD’ is a dark and beguiling play which stays with you. I wish that Plate had let the audience sit in the dark, following the harrowing final scene, and think about what they had just experienced. The quick lights up and the curtain call broke the emotional involvement in the journey on which Harrower, Plate, Hammer and Weldon had taken us.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Dobama’s ‘BLACKBIRD’ is a must see production! That said, be aware that is not an easy play to sit through as the subject matter, the language, and the emotional closeness caused by the intimate acting area, makes the experience intense.