Hot Wings: David Harrower's Blackbird is riveting theater, and not to be missed

Jan 28, 2009 at 4:00 am

Fluorescent ceiling lights beat down mercilessly on the stage setting that purports to be an office break room but feels more like an anvil. On this anvil playwright David Harrower is not pounding metal into shape. In Blackbird, which is receiving a breathless and harrowing staging at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Harrower's remembrance of things past is hammering at truth and memory. "This is like that," Una crisply tells Ray early in their stark confrontation. Yet during the ensuing clock-stopping 85 minutes, nothing is quite as it seems even though everything that occurs feels somehow inevitable.

Although violence is kept to a minimum, Blackbird is unrelentingly brutal. The story plays out on two levels. For even as events unfold onstage, somehow we are also inside the characters' minds, vicariously sharing Una's urgency and Ray's confusion. So it is that a closing door sounds like a thundering cannon. To Ray Una is "a ghost, turning up from nowhere." Ray knows why she's here. But why is she here? All too soon that other love that dare not speak its name is voiced with the numbing impact of a blow to the groin. "How many other twelve-year-olds have you had sex with?" Una asks.

As we voyeuristically learn what transpired fifteen years ago when Una was twelve and Ray was forty, we find ourselves torn by questions: Was this heinous deed an act of crass exploitation, or was it intertwined with a twisted kind of love? Blackbird seems so much simpler a play than Harrower's enigmatic Knives in Hens, which received a memorable staging two years ago from Upstream Theater. Yet there are no easy answers, no comforting platitudes, to describe, excuse or even justify anything that unfolds here, then or now.

The Rep Studio mounting is beyond praise. As meticulously and stunningly directed by Amy Saltz, there is not one single second in which all that occurs onstage does not feel simultaneously spontaneous and designed. Here is a director who knows precisely where she wants this production to go yet is confident enough to trust her actors to get there on their own. There is no sense of performance here. From abrupt beginning to chilling end, Blackbird unravels naturally, organically, yet with the specter of destiny just out of sight.

Christopher Oden's Ray is a haunting study in defeat. Wearing a blue-striped shirt (that visualizes the three years he spent in prison and lets us know that he is still a prisoner of the past), Ray stares at Una in disbelief as he stands amid the debris in a carelessly filthy room that is emblematic of his shabby, secretive existence. Rock-solid yet weary, Oden reveals the anguish of a battered soul.

Distrust is the order of the evening, even extending to the playbill, which informs us that Carmen Goodine, who inhabits Una, is making her professional stage debut in this role. Are we really to believe that? It almost takes an act of faith to be persuaded that any first-timer could sculpt a creation so passionate yet so disciplined. "I was shameless," Una tells Ray. So too is Goodine shameless. Her portrayal of a child-woman consumed by demons and fantasies is fearless.

Costume designer Elizabeth Eisloeffel has garbed Una in a paradoxical outfit. The top half of her body remains alluring and inviting; the streaky skirt is emblematic of her muddied, stained life. The angular scenic design by Luke Hegel-Cantarella, the sere lighting from Mary Jo Dondlinger and the surreal sound design by Rusty Wandall all join to create a pitiless mood that parches the viewer. My mouth hasn't been this dry at a theater since I saw Lawrence of Arabia.

It is rare to attend a production anywhere that can be deemed flawless. Theater, after all, does not pursue perfection; it strives for a sense of life. But this Blackbird would be hard to improve upon. It makes exhilarating demands on performer and viewer alike. The first is this: It demands to be seen.