'Blackbird' takes unflinching look at illicit sex

Compelling cast tackles edgy play at Everyman Theatre

May 20, 2010|By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun

There is no connection between David Harrower's unnerving play "Blackbird" and the Beatles song of that name. The author borrowed the title on an impulse after hearing something else entirely — a jazz version of the old song "Bye Bye Blackbird." Still, bits of the lyrics from that Beatles' tune come easily to mind as the 2005 play unfolds in a bracing new production from Everyman Theatre.

The play reveals a sort of "dark black night" of the soul, when two characters, each with "sunken eyes" and "broken wings," struggle "to be free" — free of each other, of their shared past and the temptation to relive it.

When Una, a woman in her mid-20s, arrives unannounced at the office of a 50-something man named Ray she hasn't seen for 15 years, the awkwardness of the confrontation is unmistakable. The cause of that tension is revealed with the equivalent of a punch to the gut. Ray, it turns out, was a crucial part of Una's life when she was only 12.

"Blackbird" takes us headlong into dangerous "Lolita" territory, only to deposit us on the edge of "Doubt."

Harrower got the idea for his compact, tautly structured play after reading about a true incident involving a US serviceman who ran off with a British girl he met over the Internet, and who spent a decade in prison for child abuse. "Blackbird" presents a different scenario, but the core issues remain, here intensified by introducing the scarred, scared individuals long after they became caught up in a sordid business that neither fully understood at the time.

What interests the Scottish playwright is the toll something like this must take, how it affects a girl emotionally as she grows physically into a woman, how a man comes to terms with his complete moral failure — and how both will continue to sort out their feelings about sex and abuse, dependency and deceit.

Part of the play's power comes from the tightness of focus, with all the action centered in a messy, impersonal break room of Ray's office (Jim Fouchard designed the almost uncomfortably realistic set for the Everyman stage).

And part of what makes "Blackbird" such vibrant theater is Harrower's distinctive approach to language. The characters speak in a kind of staccato poetry, their thoughts often incomplete, their voices often speaking over one another. This exchange is typical:

RAY: You drove here?

UNA: Yes.

RAY: How many

How long did it take you?

Where

I don't believe

Such stylistic idiosyncrasies only add to an already formidable challenge for actors assuming these roles, which require some level of sympathy if we are to hang onto all the uneven phrases, the increasingly painful, sometimes just plain creepy revelations. This production, directed by Derek Goldman with a sure, sensitive touch, is fortunate in its casting.

Megan Anderson gives a gripping portrayal as Una, a combination of nerves and determination, weakness and steel. During the most nakedly emotional scenes, she cuts so close to the bone that you might forget that this is theater. A more girlish actress, in looks and gesture, could add an extra, chilling dimension to the play, but Anderson is thoroughly persuasive nonetheless, especially in conveying the remnants of what a judge described as Una's "suspiciously adult yearnings."

David Parkes artfully reveals the volatile mix of guilt, defiance and fear that animates Ray. It's a sure, nuanced, absorbing performance, gaining in power with each revelation of the character's soul, each recollection of things that shouldn't — or should — have happened in the past.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

twitter.com/clefnotes

If you go: "Blackbird" runs through June 13 at Everyman Theatre, 1727 N. Charles St. Tickets are $18 to $40. Call 410-752-2208 or go to everymantheatre.org.

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