by Lee Blessing
Directed by Nick Hagen
The New Space
17517 15th Avenue NE
Seattle, WA 98101 / (206) 403-5112

Reviewed by Jerry Kraft

You know that old "ripped from the headlines" ad line? If ever a play actually deserved it, then it must be "Two Rooms" by Lee Blessing. This powerfully relevant drama is the story of an American man taken prisoner in the Middle East, and his wife who waits for him at home. The wife's companions are an ambitious and self-interested reporter and a functionary State Department officer. The man's companions are unidentified rooms, anonymous captors and a constant awareness of mortal threat and absolute powerlessness. As a means of connection, his wife Lainie empties a room in her home, except for a small mat, and there she shares spiritual captivity with Michael while he's locked in those other, distant rooms. It is a brilliantly written, deeply felt and passionately argued examination of the intimate relationship between one man and one woman, and a compelling examination of the role of institutions and governments in these very personal "incidents."

This production, by The New Space theatre of Shoreline is deeply felt and fully invested in by the actors, but falls considerably short of realizing the depth and complexity of the characters and situations. It's an earnest and commendable piece of work that shows obvious respect for the text and the verisimilitude of the drama, but it's simply under-powered in terms of acting technique and incompletely realized in directorial control. This is a production that allows a clear understanding of what the play is, but also an unhappy recognition of how much more the performance could be.

The black-box playing space of this theatre is perfect for this show, providing both the starkness of these rooms and the intimacy of the interaction. On an unfinished sheet of thin plywood, a simple brown mat provides the perch for a bearded, kneeling man, handcuffed and blindfolded. Michael, a professor living in Beirut, explains how he was seized on the street, taken from there to here (wherever here is) beaten, left in silence and darkness, then held...and held. His location in limbo is an emptiness perfectly matched by the empty room his wife creates to feel near him. His place in life has no more distinct locus than simply captivity, and because he is nowhere at all, Lainie can find him there, suspended as she is in equal uncertainty of his place or condition.

A reporter, Walker, urges her to make her circumstance public, but actually is less interested in helping her than in getting a big story. The State Department officer, Ellen, is a pure bureaucrat, more institutional than human, more procedural than passionate. They accompany Lainie in her long, lonely vigil, but they are grounded in a real world that she transcends in order to have the profoundly human connection with Michael that she needs. Each of these characters has a distinct relationship to the theoretical and the actual, to the idea and the deed.

Raymond Burke is a large, robust man and he does a fine job of letting us see how this sort of captivity diminishes a person's humanity, how his physical pain and deprivation becomes a kind of emotional lacunae, and how his present reality increasingly becomes no more than grasping on to survival in the shape of his memory of a life that once was. He's especially effective in tender scenes with his wife, reunited in spirit if not in fact, and alternately supporting and depending on one another. He's rather less effective in finding enough variety, both vocal and physical, to keep the dramatic discourse interesting and dynamic. What we do see is the dis-empowered nature of captivity, the way in which the individual becomes less and less, and the gradual reduction of all the elements of physical existence, of the body's needs, until what is left is almost purely spiritual.

As Lainie, Kara Whitney is by far the most effective actor in this show, drawing a constantly shifting spectrum of emotions from dispassionate functioning to the most anguished anger, fear and loss. What I especially appreciate is that this is never a woman who lets her most overpowering emotions control her. She's coldly objective when necessary, movingly affected when called for, angry, bitter, outraged and resigned, but never to an extent that her emotions are in control of her. It's a strength that ultimately convinces us that this woman would endure all of this and certainly be changed, but never broken.

Her companions have regrettably less of that complexity and depth. Geoff Finney plays the reporter Walker with such lightweight elan that it's hard to believe he really understands, let alone wields, the power of the press, or that his ambition is such that he can willingly turn the most personal and searing of experience into good copy. He also fails to mark a clear dramatic arc in the story development, remaining too consistently on a single emotional plane throughout, although that is at least as much the failing of director Nick Hagen. Victoria Drake is simply not convincing as a State Department officer, never wielding either the authority or the institutional acquiescence of a lifelong bureaucrat. As a result, we never get a believable sense of the impenetrable wall of official policy nor the dehumanized inconsequence of a mere functionary. Given the depth and intelligence of the issues of government and policy contained in this script, it's a fatal piece to be missing.

"Two Rooms" is a striking piece of dramatic writing, stunningly prescient given that it was written in 1988, and The New Space is a valuable addition to the Seattle theatre scene. For all the elements in this production that could have, and should have, been much stronger, it is still a perfectly respectable accomplishment.

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