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A CurtainUp Review
By Adrienne Onofri<
A person addressing an audience explains the roots and manifestation of anti-U.S. fervor in the Middle East. Pictures are shown of a large building reduced to rubble by a terrorist attack and people standing shaken and sorrowful amid the destruction. No, this isn't CNN or Frontline last Tuesday. It's a scene in Lee Blessing's Two Rooms, a play written in 1988.
Ardelle Striker, producing director of Blue Heron Theatre, and Two Rooms director Roger Danforth had planned before September 11 to revive Blessing's play, and they never wavered in their decision after real-life terrorist horror unfolded in their city's streets. The fact that they attracted a cast with stellar credentials to perform in Blue Heron's tiny studio theater indicates many other artists agree this is not the time to back away from thought-provoking work in favor of escapist fare. The cast includes Thomas James O'Leary, who had a 2½-year run as the Phantom of the Opera on Broadway; Monica Koskey, an alumna of the Actors Theatre of Louisville; Steve Cell, who was featured in the Brian Dennehy revival of Death of a Salesman; and Beth Dixon, seen on Broadway earlier this year in Major Barbara.
O'Leary and Koskey portray Michael and Lainie Wells, husband and wife, both teachers, Americans who had lived (and worked) in Beirut, where Michael was kidnapped by terrorists. When the play begins, Michael has already been held for over a year. Back in the States, Lainie keeps a vigil in his home office, which she has stripped of furniture and decor in order to simulate Michael's present environment. She imagines a small, rectangular rug - the only thing in the room - to be Michael's prison, and stares at it and touches it frequently.
Lainie has not been playing the role the American public expects of her: grieving yet resolute survivor. Oh, she's resolute all right, but not in any public display of "courage". She's resolute about her criticism of the U.S. government's handling of the case and how it is prolonging her husband's ordeal. Even this, she isn't immediately public about - despite the coaxing of an ambitious journalist named Walker (Cell), who wants to tell her story. Although reluctant to be his subject, Lainie does open up to him; she also vents to the seemingly sympathetic but ultimately by-the-books State Department official assigned to the case (Dixon).
Meanwhile, Michael remains in his cell - or cells, as the kidnappers move him around to avoid detection. Blindfolded and handcuffed, he narrates imaginary letters to Lainie. In a beautifully staged and touching scene, the two rooms - his cell, her vacated office - become one as husband and wife commune with each other.
This is one of the powerful dramatic moments of Two Rooms. Like Blessing's other works, most notably A Walk in the Woods, the play has a mix of such emotional zingers and stretches of political talk. The political dialogue is at times incisive and at times a bit too dry to make for absorbing drama (especially in the cramped, hard seating of Blue Heron's studio).
Two Rooms is not electric throughout: Some scenes are more intense and personal than others, so while each act concludes with a catharsis, it's not an entirely engaging piece of theater. The production is uniformly excellent, though.
All four actors give solid performances in roles that are not written to be singularly sympathetic or unsympathetic. Dixon's efficiency never comes off as cold-heartedness, thus contradicting the stereotype of a government bureaucrat (as does giving this role to a middle-aged woman). Cell's character eludes the stereotype of the ruthless journalist who uses others' scandal and misery to further his career. You're never quite sure whether to trust him, or what to make of the apparent sexual tension between him and Lainie - and the playwright's decision not to pigeonhole Walker presents a challenge that Cell meets ably. O'Leary, too, has to actually convey a personality rather than simply pander to the audience's sympathies. Koskey, as Lainie, has all the knockout moments in the play. Her Holly Hunter-ish headstrong-nature-in-a-diminutive-package can, like Hunter's, be variously impressive and irritating, but Koskey's red, puffy eyes at the end of the play prove how thoroughly she has embodied this despairing woman.
The set is simple, but its few details are effective: the Arabic graffiti on the theater's walls, the partially painted curtains that stand for the walls of the rooms. The lighting design is also gentle but pointed, fluctuating as the play's venues - and tone - shift. The lighting in Michael's cell is eerily familiar: horizontal and vertical bars projected on the backdrop look like the shell that's left of the Twin Towers.
So, what does the 13-year-old Two Rooms have to tell us as we dig out of the ruins of the World Trade Center? That hatred of the United States is not a new phenomenon in the Arab world. That the United States' refusal to negotiate with kidnappers (or, in 2001, to recognize how U.S. foreign policy led to September 11th), because doing so would "legitimize" the enemy, may just be a convenient excuse to pursue a one-sided agenda. That it's ordinary people - the heartbroken spouses, parents, siblings, children and friends of victims - who suffer irreparably and most profoundly from terrorists' and governments' misdeeds. That perhaps we should rethink our fetishizing of grief, be it the story Walker wants to write in Two Rooms or the incessant survivor profiles on Dateline NBC.
If you're willing to consider these painful truths in a time of already severe pain, and sit through an austere drama that deals with them, Two Rooms is a play to see.
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