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Review: San Francisco - 'Blackbird'

Presented by and at the American Conservatory Theater

(c) Aisle (The Internet Magazine of Stage Reviews)

May 17, 2007

By Judy Richter

When Peter (Steven Culp) enters the lunchroom of the company where he works, he's forced to confront a past he's tried to escape. Una (Jessi Campbell), whom he molested 15 years ago when she was 12, has found him and wants to talk to him. Thus begins American Conservatory Theater's production of David Harrower's "Blackbird," tautly and intelligently staged by Loretta Greco and featuring two topnotch actors. Running less than an hour and a half without intermission, this 2005 work by the Scottish playwright won the 2007 Olivier Award for best new play.

Peter is not the middle-aged man's real name. He's changed it from Ray because of the scandal that erupted around his arrest, trial and imprisonment for more than three years. He's living what appears to be a respectable life with a responsible job. Despite his anger and efforts to get her to leave, Una insists on talking about what happened to her for several reasons, chief of which may be an effort to achieve closure and to let him know that the pain he caused her still hasn't gone away.

Between the two of them, they recall their illicit relationship, starting when her father invited Ray, a neighbor, to their house for a barbecue. Ray struck up a conversation with Una, who sat by herself. Before long, he was obsessed with her, and she, with her prepubescent fantasies, wanted him to be her boyfriend. Eventually they sneaked away and had sex at an inn in another town.

Their encounter in the lunchroom -- a barebones, messy place with snack-food packages, old coffee cups and other items (set by Robert Brill with stark lighting by Russell H. Champa) -- runs through a gamut of emotions and moods revealing that there might be still be the faintest spark between them. At other times, she's accusatory, implying he might still favor little girls, but he denies he's a pedophile. The centerpiece of the play is a long monologue by Una, in which she recounts her version of that fateful day and what happened afterward. He responds with a shorter monologue giving his version of the events.

David F. Draper's costumes depict Ray in a business-like shirt and tie and Una in a trench coat at first. As the play progresses, however, he eventually loosens, then removes his tie, and she removes her coat and then her red cardigan to reveal a short dress that shows her cleavage -- perhaps emblematic of the stripping away of emotional layers. However, unlike John Patrick Shanley's "Doubt" and David Mamet's "Oleanna," "Blackbird" seems less ambiguous, especially where Ray is concerned. Audience sympathy tends to gravitate toward him right from the start, and although there are some moments of real doubt, one tends to believe his statement that she was the only one, the only girl he molested. On the other hand, no one can deny that what he did was terribly wrong and terribly damaging. Una may indeed have wanted his love when she was 12, but at that age, she wasn't mature enough to make such a choice.

Cello music written and performed by Jorge Boehringer sets the tense mood as the curtain rises. The subtle sound design is by Jake Rodriguez. The program doesn't name the youngster who appears at the end.

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