Review: Victory Garden’s “Blackbird”

 

Blackbird confrontation

Blackbird

a play by David Harrower

Reviewed by Timothy McGuire

The much anticipated dramatic play Blackbird, staring William Peterson and Mattie Hawkinson is indeed quite disturbing; it gives humanity to both a child molester and his victim as their characters are presented on stage un-judged by the author David Harrower.

blackbird_mattie&william David Harrower has written a soul-stirring play that shows the complexity of human emotions and the struggle we have with guilt and being honest with ourselves. David Harrower does not try to justify Ray’s action nor is in favor of abolishing the age limit for sexual maturity, he sees his work as more of a metaphor for questioning other social norms. Harrower lets the characters stumble through their emotions, not demonizing or giving false purity to either character. Both characters show their humanity, with flaws and wrongful desires along with kindness and love. How horrible a crime was committed is left to the audience to think about and decide, Ray and Una struggle on stage to find that out for themselves.

Fifteen years ago when Ray was in his forties, he befriended a twelve year old girl Una. After serving three years in prison for child abduction, he has painfully put together a new life. After seeing a picture of Ray in a magazine at her doctor’s office Una has come to confront her past assailant. In Ray’s empty office cafeteria the emotional confrontation between them goes in unexpected directions as the molester and victim meet, or possibly it is past lovers meeting again.

blackbird_arguing William Peterson sucks the life out of his character to portray a beat-down Ray just fighting to get from day to day. Peterson’s ability to darken his emotions and stumble with the confidence to express himself is extraordinary. The choices Ray made in his past were absolutely wrong, but what was his motive? How did he let himself form a relationship with a twelve year old girl? William Peterson captures Ray’s inner struggle with the guilt of his actions and the justifications he believes means something.

William Peterson is a star, but this show belongs to Mattie Hawkinson.

Ms. Hawkinson, capturing her character’s poised and nervous state, came on to the stage as Una and through out her personal conversation with Ray keeps the audience glued to her with their attention. With just two characters in most of the play, Mattie proves that she belonged on stage with the best of them. After watching my favorite actor (William Peterson) the first comment I had when I left the theatre was “Get ready for Mattie Hawkinson.” This should be a break out performance to a great career.

blackbird meetingThe set, a cold, desolate cafeteria, was designed by Dean Taucher, and he presents a set that, thought simplistic, is actually very detailed. The remains of coworkers’ lunches are left strewn about, just another mess in the typical unfinished cleaning-up that takes place in a cafeteria. The room that earlier in the day was busy with people and filled with life is now completely empty until the next morning, like the void that fills both Una and Ray’s heart since their earlier relationship. The setting never leaves the office cafeteria and the time of the day expels a creepy lonesome feeling. It seems strange a victim of a sexual crime would meet her predator there.

Blackbird won the Olivier Award (Britain’s equivalent of a Tony Award) for best new play in 2007, beating out tough competition with plays such as Peter Morgan’s “Frost/Nixon” and Tom Stoppard’s” Rock and Roll.” Making its Chicago premier at Victory Gardens, Director Dennis Zacek allows the unique text and talented actors carry the one act conversation.

Blackbird possesses that unique quality found in theatre of presenting a topic that forces the audience to an uncomfortable edge, as their skin crawls with the thought of empathizing with ideas that go against their moral core. It forces you to question the most reviled actions in society, leading one to question personal crimes you have committed and how it would play out if you were confronted with the past fifteen years later.

Rating: «««½

Where: Victory Gardens Theatre
When: Thru – Aug 9, 2009
Tickets: $30-$58, Box Office: 773-871-3000

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Review – "Dublin Carol" at Steppenwolf

In today’s world, replete with the such mouthpieces as Oprah and Dr. Phil, we have been directed to blame our supposed problems on others, often settling on some experience between ourselves and our parents.  Within the confines of this pop-culture psychiatry, one has to wonder – what if my problems were created by choice I made on my own?  What if I my screw-ups have no connection with whether, as a child, I was loved enough or rewarded enough or had the best Halloween costume?  Could it be that I simply made the wrong choice at the wrong time, irregardless of my past?

William Peterson plays John in Conor McPherson's "Dublin Carol" In Irish playwright Conor McPherson’s one-act “Dublin Carol“, produced by Steppenwolf Theatre, we come to grips with just these questions through the actions of John, an alcoholic Irish father (the Golden-Globe and Emmy-nominated William Peterson), living and working in a funeral home, and Mary, his estranged and stoic daughter (Nicole Wiesner), who visits her father just days before Christmas, bringing with her disturbing news that offers John a chance to escape the burdens of his past.  Rounding out this amazing ensemble is Mark, a cholerous part-time employee at the funeral home  (played by Stephen Louis Grush – who also was the lead in Steppenwolf’s recent hit Good Boys And True.  See my review here).

DublinCarol-2 Adeptly directed by the 2008 Tony-award winning Amy Morton (for her performance in August: Osage County), Morton possesses the propitious ability to mold a character’s tacit moments and halting dialogue into a complex and empathetic character.  Case in point – much of the father’s diatribes consist of rehashings of his past misfortunes.  Some directors might harness these lines to create a character suffocating with inner-shame on top of worldly resentment.  But Morton molds the father into a character that – despite his reprobate past as well as his present-day vapid existence – is wholly empathetic; holding a glimmer of optimism and appreciation. 

Kevin Depinet’s set, the father’s cluttered one-room apartment within the funeral home, is fairly nondescript, but the pallid room serves to communicate the appropriate bleakness of the characters and their lives.  Additionally, the lighting (Robert Christen) and costumes (Ana Kuzmanic) are inobtrusive and effective. 

DublinCarol-1 Most Christmas productions are uplifting and/or playful, full of holiday traditions and loving families.  Dublin Carol is none-of-the-above.  But Conor McPherson’s play encompasses much of the harsh realities many of us encounter at Christmas – family dysfunction, unspoken animosities, squashed family secrets.  When daughter Mary utters, in a throw-away manner, the line “I’m kind of an idiot in my own right”, we come around to the fact that despite our pasts, we alone are responsible for the choices we make in our adult lives. 

Dublin Carol augustly brings to life an imperfect man that, in the end, is doing the best he can in his circumstances.  Could we authentically ask for anything more? 

Rating: «««½

Stephen Louis Grush on his role of Mark in Dublin Carol.

Nicole Wiesner on her role of Mary in Dublin Carol.

 

Aside: This Chicago ticket broker offers a great selection of tickets in the city – Purchase tickets for Wicked in Chicago and nationwide theater events like Radio City Christmas Spectacular tickets – a favorite during the holiday.