The stark and touching 'Two Rooms' connects and captivates

June 30, 1994|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

The first thing that strikes you about the Maryland Arts Festival's production of Lee Blessing's "Two Rooms" is that, zTC contrary to expectations arising from the title, the set is not neatly divided into two rooms, side by side.

Instead, as conceived by designer Gary Siegler, the spare, abstract set consists of a central platform at the back of the stage, representing a cell in Beirut where an American teacher named Michael Wells is being held hostage. The area surrounding the platform represents Wells' home in the States, where his wife, Lainie, has attempted to create a room she believes approximates her husband's cell.

Under the direction of Martin Ruof -- a recent TSU theater student, and the first student to direct a Maryland Arts Festival production -- this design provides a stunning physical environment for Blessing's examination of international politics, the press and, most of all, the indestructibility of the bond between a deeply devoted husband and wife.

The husband and wife are portrayed by a real-life husband and wife -- TSU faculty members C. Richard Gillespie and Maravene Loeschke. When we first see Gillespie's Michael, he is reciting a letter to his wife -- reciting it since he is blindfolded and his hands are shackled. When we first see Loeschke's Lainie, she is dragging a mattress around the house, trying to find a place where she can feel her husband's presence.

In other words, from the start, Blessing -- best known for his 1988 Broadway play, "A Walk in the Woods" -- makes it clear that these two are sustained by the connection between them. It's a connection director Ruof accentuates by slowly and subtly decreasing the physical distance that separates them.

In the first act, when Lainie talks to Michael, Loeschke sits on the floor, staring at the mattress as if he is lying there. Her behavior makes little sense to either the reporter (Bruce Nelson) or the State Department representative (Linda Chambers) who intrude in her life.

At first, the set's invisible barrier between husband and wife is only occasionally crossed. To get Lainie's attention, the reporter stamps his foot on Michael's platform, and though he is thousands of miles away, Michael lurches. Later, the State Department official steps on the platform while admitting she dreams about Michael.

In the second act, the line separating Michael's world from Lainie's is more poignantly broached when their thoughts become so closely linked, they answer each other's questions. Then, disturbingly, as the reporter and the State Department begin to intervene, the couple starts to pull apart. Michael questions whether he's alive or dead; Lainie can't remember what he looks like.

As involved as they become in Lainie and Michael's situation, Nelson's prodding reporter and Chambers' stuffy bureaucrat never fully grasp the humanity underlying what he sees as a news story and she sees as a sticky incident.

That's precisely the point being made by Blessing, a playwright who began his career writing about relationships and more recently has combined that subject with headline-making events.

Gillespie and Loeschke's warm performances emphasize that underlying humanity, but what sets this production apart is the way that theme is reinforced by director Ruof's insightful use of Siegler's stark set. Just as the set conveys the sense of a prison cell without using walls or bars, so do we come away believing that a hostage's spouse can feel as imprisoned as the hostage himself.

THEATER REVIEW

What: "Two Rooms"

Where: Towson State University, Studio Theatre, Fine Arts Center, Osler and Cross Campus drives

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, tonight and July 14; matinee 3 p.m. July 10. Through July 16

Tickets: $12

Call: (410) 830-2787

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