What seems like a great idea in the middle of the night can notoriously swerve in the other direction come the cold light of day. In David Harrower's Blackbird, a ghastly mistake from a decade and a half ago arises like some beast from the deep, in a story that unfolds with painful intensity, unbearable compassion and comprehension, and a sense of loose ends that will never be properly tied.
The action begins, in the dark, with two sets of lungs panting with anxiety. Then the lights blare, and we find ourselves in a crappy, litter-strewn, depressing industrial break room (Joseph Stanley's set doesn't scrimp on cardboard cartons, greasy food detritus, overflowing trash cans, and fluorescent light). Alone in the break room are Una (Tracey Maloney) and Ray (Stephen Yoakam). From the first moment they face each other, they radiate waves of shock, angst, and transgression.
Una, it turns out, has driven quite a ways to surprise Ray at his place of employment, after 15 years of separation. Ray is by no means pleased to see her, due to the fact that, when they parted, they had just consummated an unlikely romance. Ray had been 40 at the time, Una 12. After three years in prison, Ray moved to a new town, assumed a new name, and, one assumes, lived under the queasy apprehension that one day his life would feature some variety of this nightmare.
Pillsbury House Theatre at Guthrie Theater's Dowling Studio
through November 30
Ray looks fit to burst, glancing out the door, barking in a hoarse voice about his job, how he doesn't have much time, how she shouldn't be there. He is impossibly tense and surprisingly defiant, wanting nothing more than to be rid of her as quickly as possible. Una, in the early going, is an enigma, seemingly numbed by the vastness of the moment—but entirely unwilling to scram despite Ray's insistence.
A storm is brewing. Una's palpable anger builds as she probes around the details of Ray's new life, while dropping scraps of information indicating that her own has been a mess. The wince factor is ratcheted up considerably when Una asks Ray if she was the only 12-year-old he ever slept with, and she works up a frightening, electric fury, lambasting Ray with her pent-up pain, feelings of desertion (more on that in a moment), and the unbearable sense that things went wrong and will never be put right again.
Harrower isn't crafting an emotional revenge story, though, and director Stephen DiMenna steers the tone with assurance into the second half, when the mood shifts. Una and Ray recount the circumstances of their first meeting, at a family barbecue, and while their memories differ, we sense the old chemistry developing again. Then Maloney and Yoakam each deliver long, affecting monologues about their characters having run away together, making love in a rented room in a seaside town, then their opposing takes on whether Ray left her there or planned to return.
Either option, of course, has uniquely disturbing aspects, and while the essential wrongness of their bygone romance never leaves the table, neither does the dawning realization that these two people were once very much in love. The production manages to convey a sweetness beneath their transgressions that humanizes each character and renders tragic the lives each has had to live for following their desires.
Then a couple of very shocking things happen, one of which turned me into a cartoon character, literally reaching up to close my gaping jaw. Suffice it to say that DiMenna pulls off the double trick of coloring his characters in resonant, sympathetic tones, then jarring us back to the reality that what they did was against the law for very good reasons. The end of this short one-act is bleak, tumbling down into blackness, the theatrical equivalent of a last punch to the gut after one has moved beyond discomfort into something else entirely. One waits for the lights to come up again, wishing for Una's sun to rise in turn but knowing, with hurtful certainty, that it will not.