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Lovers Remember in Blackbird

(c) San Francisco Bay Times

May 10, 2007

By Albert Goodwyn

Jessi Campbell and Steven Culp.
Photo by Eric Tomasson.
Blackbird is a bittersweet love story, a tale of confrontation between a man and a woman who had been lovers 15 years ago. They rehash how good they had been with each other. Now they express their failed love with accusations and recriminations. The ferocity of their arguing is the last vestige of the passion developed so long ago.

This play by British playwright David Harrower is currently running at ACT.

"I had an erection when I was standing beside you," Ray (Steven Culp) says to Una (Jessi Campbell), recounting the involvement they had. She has unexpectedly come to the break-room at his industrial job. "The door's closed," he insists, on that episode from long ago, "How did you find me?" He has changed his name since then and built a new life, all because of what they did together.

"How many 12 year olds have you ever had sex with?" Una asks him. When he says "None," she knows it's a lie, because she was 12 when they did it. And he was 40.

He spent years in prison for statutory rape. He now has a wife and family and wants to forget his mistake. "Go home," he tells her.

In their character interaction, they seem more like disputants than lovers, but they can't leave each other alone. Mr. Culp as Ray occupies the stage with frenetic, unmotivated activity, but Ms. Campbell as Una remains the focus. Across the broad stage they drive each other away with her concentrated vituperitizations, then draw back together and revert to mundane conversations. About a half-hour into the ninety-minute one-act, Ray confesses he had sex with a minor.

"And she was fine with that?" Una asks. She wants him to admit what he did was wrong but he is in denial. In her pleading confrontation, she wants him to use the word abuse. The shouting reaches a fever-pitch. They join in throwing around the metal chairs of the brightly lit break room. He upends the trash can and strews trash over the floor. The prop trash becomes a visual metaphor during the surprise ending. Having unleashed their libidos in violent ways, they sink into a post-coital collapse.

Then they try to fuck on one of the dining tables, but the chemistry is incomplete between them. Neither of them has resolved the old occasion. Ray has tried to be good since then, but Una wants closure.

Mr. Culp plays Ray with a sense of weariness, which contrasts with the passion that Una still brings out in him. Ms. Campbell gives her part a self-righteous tenacity that shows Una's barely sublimated longing for him. In the end, "I've never loved anyone else."

The wide, sterile interpretation of the set, with harsh lighting attenuates the height of the stage, using only one-third of that available This works to create a sense of claustrophobia, appropriate for the situation. The subject matter might be repellent to some audience members, but the raw energy with which the two characters approach each other, and the unexpected closing give a hint of redemption.

Blackbird plays through May 27 at American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., SF. Tickets ($17.50 to $81.50) are available by phone at (415) 749-2228 and online at

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