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An Unresolved Obsession

15 Years later, Players Confront Disturbing Intimacy

(c) Mercury News

April 29, 2007

By Karen D'Souza

Steven Culp and Jessi Campbell in the West Coast premiere of David Harrower's "Blackbird." (Kevin Berne - ACT)
When Una and Ray last saw each other, they had sex, and the act tore apart the fabric of their lives. He was about 40. She was 12. When they see each other again, 15 years later, the open wound of their relationship has not healed over.

Indeed, their scars are painfully fresh in "Blackbird," David Harrower's controversial play that makes its West Coast premiere Wednesday night at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater. It's a deeply disturbing 90-minute work that moves with the urgency of a freight train. And even though you see the impact coming, you can't bear to look away.

"'Blackbird' is a script that grabs you immediately," says Carey Perloff, ACT's artistic director, "like Pinter, I would say, filled with secrets and silences and innuendo and pain and surprises, as well as truly amazing monologues that leave you sort of breathless. ... You start reading, and you can't stop."

Harrower ("Knives in Hens") got the idea for the play from a news item about an American Marine in his 30s who struck up a relationship online with a woman claiming to be 19. Only when they met face to face did he realize she was 12. But he didn't walk away.

"That kicked my thinking off," he recalls in a soft-spoken brogue on the phone from his native Scotland. "I was thinking, 'Well, when did he actually see that she wasn't 19? Did he see it at the airport? Did she have to tell him? Was he a pedophile from the off, or was he someone in a moment of madness?'"

Unlike other plays that have grappled with the same subject, from Paula Vogel's Pulitzer-winning "How I Learned to Drive" to Julia Cho's "The Winchester House," Harrower's play leaves the theatergoer no way out. It lacks a dazzling sense of theatricality, a richness of language and imagery, that can give an audience a measure of relief from the gruesome subject at hand. Here the dialogue comes at you with a ferocity that keeps you locked in the moment, unable to catch your breath.

But it's also "an incredibly evenhanded tale, which is remarkable given its subject matter," Perloff says. "Intellectually, I knew I was reading about something scary and immoral, but emotionally I understood Ray as strongly as I understood Una and empathized with him very strongly, in spite of everything."

Harrower thinks society is so quick to condemn sexual predators that we don't bother trying to truly understand them - which leaves us little hope of stopping their cycle of behavior.

"These things have to be looked at," he says. "You can't just say, 'This guy's a pedophile' and push it away. We have to deal with these people. You can't just shut the door on it."

Certainly Una can't. Now 27, she confronts Ray late one night in a grubby office park by a freeway. He has spent three of the last 15 years in prison for his crime. By now he has changed his name (he is Peter now), changed his job, gotten married, moved on. But she has been trapped the entire time, living with the pain and shame of the experience every day.

As she puts it, in words that come in staccato bursts of pain: "I did the sentence. I did your sentence. For 15 years. I lost everything. I lost more than you ever did. I lost because I never had had time to, to, to begin. We never moved. That house in that street. I was talked about, pointed at, stared at. I lost all my friends ... "

Still, on some level, Una still sees her relationship with Ray as a tragic romance, and she misses it. He offered her an emotional intimacy she never had known before or since, and she still mourns its loss.

"This was a seismic emotional and sexual event in her life, and nothing else ever is going to come near it," Harrower says. "That's a fact. You just can't wipe it out and say it was abuse so it means nothing. It's possible there are grayer areas. She may still be pining for the intensity of that relationship, whether it was wrong or not."

Why "does" Una come to see Ray? Does she want closure or comfort or revenge? These questions cling to the air as the playwright turns contemporary inarticulateness into a kind of sparse poetry, a jigsaw puzzle of fragments and pauses where meaning is as elusive as emotion.

Even though the play won London's prestigious Olivier Award, and the New York Times dubbed it "a drama that promises to be the most powerful of the season," some reviewers have been turned off by it. The New Yorker said that "because Harrower has filched the play's story from the headlines ... sitting in the audience is less like going to a play than like participating in a new form of journalism: the ticker-tape drama."

But Harrower says he "didn't want to go over areas that people already knew. There's no point in me saying this is wrong and just backing up what we all know anyway. It was really important to me to give that relationship credence. I had to suspend moral judgment for a while because they still believe that what they had done was the right thing to do, whatever we think of that."

"It's a love story," Perloff says. "Certainly the relationship was and is wrong and has left scars on both participants. But at heart this is the story of two people who were desperately in love with each other, trying to make sense of their feelings a decade later. That's what's so compelling."

Where: American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary Blvd., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays
Through: May 27
Running time: 90 minutes (no intermission)
Tickets: $13.50-$81.50; (415) 749-2228,

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