What makes a person go to the theater to see a drama?
I am a firm believer that we go to the theater to have a good time. But Blackbird, onstage now at Beowulf Alley Theatre Company, is not exactly what you would call a fun show. Instead, it's compelling and disturbing.
The drama is a 90-minute, real-time confrontation between a man and woman who were "lovers" 15 years earlier—when he was 40, and she was 12. After spotting his picture in a magazine article, the woman, Una, has tracked down Ray to the office where he works after building a new life for himself following a prison sentence for statutory rape.
So what is it that would possess us to sit as a group in a dark room and watch strangers pretend to be miserable? Some would argue that we attend drama in order to learn something. That sounds, to me, a bit like forcing a child to eat vegetables.
Playwright David Harrower defies that explanation anyway, by refusing to provide a moral lesson. He gives a straightforward (and frank) depiction of a man who had a sexual relationship with a prepubescent girl, and yet the playwright passes no judgment.
The balance of power and the perception of good and evil shift back and forth throughout the play, which begins as Ray (Art Almquist) propels Una (Elizabeth Leadon Sonnenfelt) into a filthy break room at his office. He wants to leave the door open; she closes it. He wants her to leave, yet he seems unwilling to remove himself from the situation.
As their conversation grows more probing, they push buttons, open old wounds and stir old emotions. They take turns retelling their history, shifting the balance of blame each time. The tone bounces between love story and knife fight, and both feel honest and unforced.
There is a sort of Jerry Springer pleasure in watching this tragedy. The play's subject matter is controversial; it doesn't shy away from lurid detail; and the audience gets the guilt-free, voyeuristic pleasure of ringside seats.
Almquist and Leadon Sonnenfelt keep the proceedings from going off the rails by offering complex, flawed and ultimately sympathetic characters.
Almquist looks far too young to pass for Ray's 55 years, but he inhabits his character so naturally that the age issue almost disappears. As Ray explains all of the reasons that he is not a pedophile, Almquist makes it clear that these are well-worn justifications that Ray has repeated to himself over the years. Importantly, Almquist also has an earnest, appealing presence, which makes his character sympathetic in spite of his past.
Una has our sympathies, but she feels dangerous, because her motivations are so mysterious. Leadon Sonnenfelt somehow keeps all of her character's inconsistencies in the air at once. She's a predator as well as a child trapped in an adult body; she's vulnerable and dangerous; she's vengeful; and she's deeply in love.
Harrower's fractured dialogue turns into a different instrument depending on who's speaking. Almquist's words seem fumbling and unsure, while Leadon Sonnenfelt turns each broken phrase into a jagged, defensive weapon.
It's a testament to both performers that in the big, outrageous moments—Una throwing a chair, Ray dancing in a pile of trash—their characters are perfectly consistent with the people they are in their quiet, introspective moments.
Which points to another of the pleasures of watching drama: The joy of seeing something well-crafted. A gritty drama gives good actors plenty to work with. Director Laura Lippman has carefully choreographed the ebb and flow of this demanding work, building highs and lows as Almquist and Leadon Sonnenfelt circle and corner each other around the set.
Designed by Kate Natale with scenic painting by Bill Galbreath, the trashed break-room set is almost a third character in the play. (There is a literal third character, played to chilling effect by Christine Peterson.)
Ray and Una have worked to cover up the messes of their lives, but the break room has no such power. It is disgusting. Trash spills from a waste can. The floor is so dingy that the tiles are barely visible. Cabinet doors and surfaces show years of grimy usage.
Here, where filth lies out in the open, all of Ray and Una's secrets are exposed. Yet there is also a magical moment, toward the end of the play, when the debris is transformed into something of childlike wonder, almost like a pile of fallen leaves. A moment of joy bursts into a world of trash and pain.
Believe it or not, a tragedy can leave you feeling hopeful.
While I can't really explain the reasons that we go to see drama, I think one of the oldest explanations of its value still applies: catharsis. A good drama leads us through a greater emotional bandwidth than we typically experience in daily life—and without the unpleasant personal circumstances that would usually accompany it.
It's like an emotional workout. Yes, we may go to the gym because "it's good for us," but most of us also derive pleasure from the experience or its positive effects. A good drama expands our emotional strength and endurance, and builds our capacity for compassion.
So whether you choose to see Blackbird for its gritty subject matter, its passionate performances or its artistic value, there's a good chance you will emerge a better person for having done so.