Reviewed by George Basler
The setting for David Harrower’s Blackbird is a soulless, trash-filled break room in an equally soulless company. The room is lit only by glaring fluorescent lights.
In other words, the setting is a modern version of hell. That’s only fitting because the play’s two main characters are locked in their own emotional hell that gets exposed during the award-winning 80-minute drama, which opened this past weekend (April 12-14) at KNOW Theatre in downtown Binghamton.
Blackbird won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play when it opened in London in 2007 and has had two prominent productions in New York City, most recently with Jeff Daniels and Michelle Williams, both of whom received Tony nominations for their performances.
The KNOW production is intense and well-acted by Jessica Nogaret and Adam Holley. Be forewarned, though, Blackbird is deeply disturbing. Don’t expect any neat and clear resolutions at the final curtain. As Tim Gleason, its director, writes in the program, “This play presents many questions and few answers.”
The subject matter couldn’t be rawer. Una, played by Nogaret, has cornered Ray, played by Holley, to confront him about a sexual relationship they had 15 years earlier when Ray was 40 and Una was 12. Ray has since changed his name after serving time in prison, landed a job at the company and become involved in a loving relationship with an age-appropriate woman, or so he says.
What defines Blackbird is its ambiguity. Nothing is clear or simple. The face-off between Ray and Una is obviously a confrontation between a predator and his child victim. But, as written by Harrower, it’s also presented as a twisted love story, with the line blurred between revenge and desire.
This makes Blackbird a very upsetting play that advances the idea that human behavior can’t be explained by reason, but rather by darker psychological cravings that can’t be explained, or controlled.
The play is stylistically difficult as well. It features overlapping dialogue in which the characters interrupt each other and speak in incomplete sentences as people might do in real life when undergoing a severe traumatic experience. The KNOW cast does a solid job in carrying this off.
Nogaret is terrifying and heartbreaking as the emotionally stunted Una, who is torn apart by her conflicting feelings of anger and longing for the closeness she once had with Ray. The performance requires an actor to approach a breaking point, but Nogaret doesn’t go over the line into manic hysteria.
This is especially evident in a long monologue, played extremely well, in which Una describes the night of her sexual encounter with Ray and its aftermath when she feels abandoned, not only by Ray, but by her family, friends and neighbors. The character seems more traumatized by this abandonment than by the sexual abuse itself.
As Ray, Holley brings emotional shadings to the character who, by society’s standards, is morally repugnant. Holley shows a man who has lived through his own pain and is desperately trying to hide the psychological scars through self-rationalization. I’m “not like that,” he almost pleads at one point, referring to other child predators.
At the same time, Holley skillfully suggests that Ray is very conflicted person. He’s working to keep his sick passions in check while being aware that they could surface again given half a chance. He seems aware that his new life is built on a very insubstantial foundation, and that terrifies him.
In the end, the audience is left with a lot of riddles. Is Una seeking revenge or reconciliation? Is Ray a moral monster, or someone who deserves pity? Are Ray and Una victim and victimizer, or star-crossed lovers? Should we even be asking these questions?
Blackbird is thought-provoking, upsetting or morally repugnant, based on your perspective. It’s a complex and challenging play.
IF YOU GO: Blackbird will be performed at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 8 p.m. Sundays through April 28 at KNOW Theatre, 74 Carroll St., Binghamton. A pay-what-you-can night will take place 8 p.m. Thursday (April 18). Tickets: $20 ($18 for seniors and $15 for student). To reserve tickets, visit www.KNOWTheatre.org, or call 724-4341.