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Harrower's 'Blackbird' Soars at ACT

'Blackbird' follows a troubling story, a storm of emotions


May 3, 2007

By Pat Craig

Moments into "Blackbird," you feel very much the eavesdropper on a bittersweet reunion of long-ago lovers.

And they are in a sense, in the David Harrower play that opened Wednesday at ACT. They share memories and recollections of significant events in their time together 15 years ago. Anger and joy play counterpoint, and the rekindling of love seems a real possibility.

In fact, you have to keep reminding yourself Una (Jessi Campbell) was only 12, when she had her three-month, life-altering affair with 40-year-old Ray (Steven Culp), who has changed his name to Peter and has constructed a new life since leaving prison.

Una, now an attractive young woman in her late 20s, has sought out Ray, after seeing a photo of him in a trade magazine. She has unfinished business with the man she met at a barbecue in her parents' back yard, and was abandoned by three months later in a seaside inn.

Why she has gone to such great pains to stage this reunion and confrontation in the messy lunch room of the firm where (now-known-as) Peter is a manager, is unclear, perhaps even to her, but certainly to the audience, who see the showdown begin at a boiling point as soon as the harsh neon tubes cast an almost-painful artificial brightness onto the stark set.

He didn't recognize her at first, thought perhaps she was a reporter sneaking in under false pretenses. He doesn't know why she's come here, and certainly doesn't want to conduct the conversation in a now-vacant lunch room. He suggests they step outside.

Almost immediately, Ray strikes you as a nice guy, a nice, child-molester guy, an abuser, a pedophile. Yet he doesn't have two heads and belch fire. He's ordinary to a fault, not tremendously bright or clever, and, as becomes increasingly obvious, still quite guilty about what happened.

Una, too, appears ordinary and not tremendously articulate. She has plenty on her mind -- rage, anger, confusion, an eagerness to blame Peter for ruining her life. But there is also a strange affection for the man, a hint of true feeling.

They are extraordinarily ordinary people still trapped in the aftermath of a nightmarish situation, stumbling to express themselves, but speaking in fragments and steering trains of thoughts into dead ends.

And, through it all, Harrower refuses to give the audience an easy way out. There is no blame here, no moral judgments, no institutionalized finger-shaking.

What you get are two people, survivors of a living horror story, both damaged and fighting to reclaim what is left of their lives. Two awfully ordinary people without particularly facile intellects, trying to explain to themselves something impossible.

And that is what may be the most amazing part of the play. At times, Harrower's writing reminds you of a Mamet or Albee, but his heroes have far less intellectual ammunition than those two authors provide their characters.

They're just regular folks, like people you'd see on BART or pass on a busy downtown street. The secret they share is what makes them remarkable.

And that creates a bit of a problem for both of the performers, who seem to have trouble being ordinary. Instead, they often deliver their lines with a heightened sense of importance, a kind of gravity that Ray and Una simply don't have. It's not a major quibble, but it does get in the way at times.

IF YOU GO, ACT, "Blackbird," by David Harrower, American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco, Tuesdays-Sundays through May 27, 85 minutes, $17.50-$81.50, 415-749-2228,

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