Relationships are complicated. Especially when the connection is between a 40-year-old man and a 12-year-old girl.
That's among the lessons of Scottish playwright David Harrower's Blackbird, said to be inspired by a 2003 case involving a 31-year-old former U.S. Marine, Toby Studebaker, and a 12-year-old British girl. Together they flew to France and checked into a hotel, having met online the year before.
Winner of the 2007 Laurence Olivier Prize for best new play, Blackbird is a masterful exploration of the dynamic between 55-year-old Ray (Scott Cordes) and 27-year-old Una (Vanessa Severo) as they recall a three-month "courtship" that culminated in a trip to a motel 15 years earlier. Directed by Bryan Moses, this one-act at the Living Room is not easy theater, but it is a riveting navigation of a forbidden relationship's legal and emotional aftermath.
The same play, with the same two actors and director, was produced at the Living Room two years ago (reviewed here February 3, 2011). It was affecting then, and this reprise remains powerful despite its now shorter 75-minute length. The story begins quickly, as Una confronts Ray at his place of employment. We're never sure just what Ray's job is, but Una has located him thanks to a picture in a trade magazine.
"How did you find me?" he asks. We, too, want to know. He's wary, nervous. He doesn't really want to talk to her.
Ray has successfully hidden behind a different name, Peter, and a new life. Does anyone in that new life know his history, including his ex-con status? The ceiling fixtures' fluorescent bulbs bathe the stage in a harsh, exposing light as the details of Ray and Una's bond emerge. (Later, a moment of darkness sheds further light on Una's story.) The lunchroom is a mess, trash strewn around the floor and debris overflowing the wastebasket, symbolic of their messed-up lives and the damage left in the wake of their tryst.
These two characters can't be easy to portray, yet Cordes and Severo immerse themselves again in the roles. These people haven't seen each other since the trial, when they shared its awful publicity. Una, still consumed, is trying to come to terms with her feelings of rage, shame, confusion, despair, even abandonment. She's a victim of not only an adult who knew better but also medical and legal systems — including a judge who admonishes her "suspiciously adult yearnings" — that failed her. Did I say it was complicated?
Ray has learned his lesson. Or has he? He, too, deals with his crime, his guilt, his yearnings, as they revisit those days. And what is Una ultimately seeking? Cordes and Severo expertly traverse the memories of their shared past, the needs and feelings that motivated their actions, and the ever-present consequences. Their reunion and its tensions come off stark, sometimes raw. In the intimate confines of the show, enacted in a smaller performance space of the Living Room, it's just Cordes and Severo — Ray and Una — maneuvering moment by moment through the alternating directions of a difficult encounter. We're eavesdropping, as unsure as the characters just where it's all headed.
In the stillness following the play's end, we're left wondering if Ray has changed, if Una can move on. Those lingering questions only heighten the impact of this heartbreaking work, and add to an uneasiness that persists long after it's over.