Bye Bye Blackbird

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blackbird-at-victory-gardens.jpgHaving lived in Chicago for more than ten years now, summer in this city is all about the lakefront, outdoor festivals such as Ravinia and the Grant Park Music Festival, slow, lazy afternoons grilling with friends and sipping Coronas.  The major arts groups in the city are either on hiatus, wrapping up their seasons, or putting on light, easy-on-the-eyes-and-on-the-brain fare.  I don’t think there has been a recent summer where one of the big arts and culture news is all about the fact that one of the city’s major cultural institutions is presenting a provocative, complex, deeply uncomfortable but undeniably memorable work.  Part of it is probably because a lot of people (especially the ones who aren’t familiar with his gritty, pre-stardom work in Chicago’s burgeoning off-loop theater scene in the 1970s) have been caught off-guard that CSI superstar William Petersen will take on material that goes to a very dark place, with surprising, and to some, disturbing, overtones of moral ambiguity.  But I think most of it is due to the fact that we haven’t seen material as brilliant, as complicated, as gnawing as David Harrower’s Blackbird, winner of the 2007 Laurence Olivier Award, the British theater’s equivalent of the Tony Awards, Best New Play (besting a heavyweight group comprised of Tom Stoppard’s Rock’n'Roll, Peter Morgan’s Frost/Nixon, and Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer), on a Chicago stage in a while.  If there is one thing that should pull you away from summer’s airy distractions, it is to see Blackbird at Victory Gardens Theatre, assuredly directed by Artistic Director Dennis Zacek, the best local production I have seen so far this year.  If for some inexcusable reason you are not able to see it, consider yourself culturally and artistically malnourished.

Blackbird, on the outset, seems like a simple play.  There’s only one set, a sterile, nondescript, trash-filled conference room in a manufacturing plant or a similar-type office location.  Except for the blackout near the end, there are hardly any lighting effects, just unfussy lighting.  There are only two characters, Ray, now known as Peter (Petersen), a schlumpy, mid-level type manager in his 50s who works in this office, and the well-dressed, well-spoken, but tightly wound-up late-twentysomething woman who visits him, Una (Mattie Hawkinson).  But Blackbird, and its emotions, its constructs, its stealth attack on our moral certainties, is far from simple – as the first couple of scenes play out, we realize that Ray and Una had an affair 15 years before when he was 40 and she was 12.   After all that time, Una, for whatever reason, has sought Ray out and re-entered his life.

Like all great playwriting, Blackbird and Harrower doesn’t let us off easy.  Unlike what some pretty boisterous commenters on Chris Jones’ blog seems to think (have they actually seen the play?), Harrower makes it clear that Ray was a predator, that he knew what he was doing, and that what he was doing constituted child abuse.  I think the more ambiguous point that Harrower makes, and the one that is the most unsettling, is on Una’s purpose for actively seeking out Ray after all these years.  Did she come to visit him at his workplace to carry out a delayed revenge scenario where his payback will be humiliation at the unmasking of the carefully re-built life he is now leading? Or did she come to seek closure, to finally be able to go adult head-to-adult head with the person who wrecked her life and to let pent-up recriminations and hurt gush forth? Or, more confoundingly, did Una come to see Ray in order to kindle, or gulp, re-kindle, a romantic relationship that she has been carrying the torch for (albeit a torch blazing with a lot of fury and hurt) all these years?  Is there a possibility that there was, and there continues to be, some semblance of love, on her part?  What kind of love is a child capable of, and in the same vein, that child’s adult self, given what she has gone through? Harrower’s brilliance is in raising this doubt in us, the audience, a doubt that challenges our moral concepts, pre, post, otherwise.  This is what, for me, makes the play a shattering experience.

Una is definitely the crux of the moral arguments in the play, and it is a breathtakingly complex and terrifying character.  Mattie Hawkinson, who I saw at the recent Goodman production of Rock’n'Roll, gives a blazingly indelible performance.  While watching her, awestruck, I thought to myself, was this how the Chicago audiences in the 1970s felt when they were watching the young Joan Allen or the young Laurie Metcalf in the early Steppenwolf productions: full of certainty in the future acting superstardom of a brilliant, daring actress? I firmly believe that Hawkinson will be the next big thing in Chicago theater after this performance. The role is a daunting mega-rollercoaster of emotions, moving from fury to confusion to inquisition to hurt to tenderness in half and quarter beats, but Hawkinson brilliantly delivers.  When she recounts that fateful day on the beach and the bed and breakfast room that Ray rented, she delicately but pointedly brings you into the 12 year old Una’s state of mind and point of view, which makes the recounting of the events and emotions more heartbreaking.  I don’t think it’s easy to pull off an acting heist when William Petersen is around, but Hawkinson definitively, unapologetically does.

Which brings us to Petersen, the reason for the close-to-sold-out run at Victory Gardens where he got his Actor’s Equity card.  He may be the celebrity that everyone is stampeding to the Biograph to see, but Ray is definitely a secondary character, more reactive and less emotionally volatile than Una.  I’ve always admired him, but I admire him more now after this play for a couple of reasons:  he unselfishly gives Hawkinson the opportunity to shine in the more difficult role, and he has taken on a complicated, and at times reprehensible, character to do so.  I think this should have been Petersen’s triumphant return to Chicago theater, not the tepid Dublin Carol at Steppenwolf last winter.  It is a terrific, nuanced performance, not as showy as Hawkinson’s, but also steadily moving across a continuum of emotions:  guilt, anxiety, defensiveness, tenderness, sexual tension.  The scene when he talks about going back to the bar after Una has wandered in looking for her “father” is devastating.  Petersen’s performance also effectively raises another one of Harrower’s points:  at what point can someone be called redeemed after committing such a heinous act – when can you say that someone has irrevocably atoned?  It is an interesting angle which makes Ray the sexual deviant more grey shading than black and white tone…until the twist close to the end of the play where your perspectives on him are jarred once again.  By choosing to appear in Blackbird instead of the myriad of other material at his disposal, some of them I’m sure more audience-pleasing, William Petersen’s comeback to the theater that formed him has enriched our city’s cultural life in one fell swoop.

Blackbird is at the Victory Gardens Biograph Theatre, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave., only until August 9.  Many performances are already sold-out.


2 Responses to “Bye Bye Blackbird”

  1. Joe Says:

    Damn, Francis, you are an excellent writer. I envy you.
    On the subject of the play, I think you admirably capture the turmoil that the audience feels after experiencing this play. It certainly disturbed me, and I keep mulling over the issues it raised. Not quite the same as rubbernecking to view an accident on the highway, this play forces the audience to confront some very unsettling and disturbing realities, whether they want to or not. Life isn’t easy or simple.

  2. francis Says:

    Hi Joe! Thanks for the kind words- you make me blush! I think “Blackbird” is one of those plays that makes you confirm passionately, unequivocally, definitively that theater is an essential part of human experience. It is a difficult play to sit through, for sure, but it captures the complexity and struggle of real life oh so accurately.

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