AISLE SAY/ Florida


by David Harrower
Directed by Beth Duda
Starring Dan Patrick Brady & Sarah Stockton
Florida Studio Theatre's Gompertz Stage III
Palm & Cocoanut Aves., Sarasota, 941-366-9000
April 27 to May 7, 2009

Reviewed by Marie J. Kilker

As if catapulted into the cramped, bleary company lunchroom, Dan Patrick Brady as Ray hysterically tries to shake off and at the same time hide Una (Sarah Stockton). She's seen him in a published photo and tracked him down. Slowly, it's revealed he'd deflowered and then left her in an inn 15 years earlier. She was 12; he, 40.  Having served a sentence, this "blackbird" (probably a reference to British slang for "jailbird") changed his name, location, work.  A new career and normal relationship with a woman seem lately to have solidified.  In the tryst's aftermath, in which Una considers herself having been violated by doctors, police, society, she endured her father's fatally blaming himself, followed by isolation from family and living a sexually ugly life. Social and sexual adjustment seem to have come only recently.
Why has Una sought Ray out? Revenge, recrimination? Or does she want reasons for the abandonment or to learn his real current status? Could it be possible she desires him, after all?  As for Ray, was he, as he insists, "not one of them" (predators) but "overcome" just once, entranced, or seduced by her? Didn't he leave her to help both of them immediately get over the affair, then atone painfully through years of horrible treatment in prison and treading the hard path to his present life and work? All are questions without answer, despite a seeming build-up to one during nearly 90 minutes of verbal and sometimes physical conflict, but with a final surprise twist.

How much interest and speculation Blackbird stirs up may depend on how familiar or shocking the subject matter is to an audience. It seems to be pretty ho-hum to regulars at FST's generally edgy Gompertz Stage III productions, and should be  old hat to those who viewed How I Learned to Drive on the mainstage years ago. Those who like Pinteresque pauses or the staccato, rough-cadenced Mamet style will appreciate David Harrower's here. Ultimately, the effect depends on the actors, though. Unfortunately, Dan Patrick Brady hits the stage shouting and for too long keeps the volume up and steady; the emotional impact has nowhere to go but down early on. Words, of which the play is more than full, often get lost, as does his accent.  Sarah Stockton's is more consistent, and she's able to use body language effectively too. Still, Brady looks his part and memorably plays one of the most cogent scenes, spreading garbage, but actually defining Ray "in the moment." Stockton's prettiness adds to the ambiguity of Una. One gets the feeling that director Beth Duda basically let the actors have their way with their characters. A setting with geometrically arranged wall of grayed-out windows  and everyday wear for costumes costume are adequate. Bruce Price's lighting is artfully natural for the scene.

It's hard to figure why, other than for stylistics or because it prompts tour de force performances, Blackbird has been winner of the Olivier and other critical accolades. Perhaps there hasn't been enough competition or better competing works have cancelled each other out.  Maybe there's a bias favoring "in yer face" plays over milder or intellectual or clearly dramatically structured ones. What's different about Blackbird is that it is almost entirely exposition, except for the brief denouement. What would ordinarily be rising and falling action consists of two extended narratives-monologues, really. They are welcome because until they come there is no action and barely any activity. What's notable to me about Blackbird is that it breaks the current trend of replacing drama with straight narrative broken up and illustrated or punctuated by dramatized scenes.  Oh, yes, and here the monologues each tell their story in traditional chronological order-not shifting or backwards in time, devices which so often pass for modern or innovative.

How compelling are Ray and Una? How absorbing is their story? Would one return to Harrower's play because of style and substance? Or if one cared to see it again, would it be to experience some good performances? Or to try to answer questions about characters and motives not determined on a first viewing? I suspect it's the last that would inspire a return to FST's Gompertz. 

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