Editor’s note: The play Blackbird contains many potential triggers and centers on sexual abuse. This review, by necessity, references some of that subject matter. Please decide with that in mind whether to proceed.
A grown-up survivor demands answers for a past she can’t forget, from an abuser determined not to go there. The intense and vulnerable Blackbird runs through June 15 at 18th & Union.
A queasy feeling descends early watching Scottish playwright David Harrower’s 2005 play, Blackbird. Reading the premise alone will do that — 56-year-old man and 27-year-old woman meet for the first time since he raped her when she was 12 — and the Seattle premiere, directed by Paul Budraitis and presented by White Rabbits Inc. and Libby Barnard at 18th and Union, certainly gives ample pre-show warning of the subject matter.
But it’s another thing entirely to bear witness to the interactions of strangers with a volcanically ugly past, and Harrower’s in media res opening sets teeth on edge, staccato dialogue pinging back and forth in the blend of artfully spare stylization and raw naturalism the entire script balances.
The setting is deadly depressing: a charmless break room in an anonymous warehouse, a folding table and chairs sitting among piles of food packaging strewn everywhere. The theater’s air conditioner moans with regularity, providing the perfect soundscape to this fluorescent-lit hell, and perhaps, offering a reminder to breathe.
Barnard plays Una, who’s tracked down the man she knew as Ray after seeing his smiling face in a trade magazine. Now, after a stint in jail for statutory rape, he’s made a new life for himself in a distant city where he’s a manager known as Peter. Shawn Belyea plays him with a pathetic world-weariness that dares us to feel sympathy.
Barnard’s performance traverses mountains, from the barely bridled fury of her initial appearance all the way to curdled nostalgia for her brief “relationship” with Ray.
Harrower’s script skillfully undercuts and rearranges the power dynamics. There’s a thrill in seeing Una browbeat Ray, catch him off guard, make him feel insecure, ridicule him for his name change.
“Peter Trevelyan? Where the hell did that come from?” Una spits. “To the manor born. The silver spoon … Because Jesus, the rich sleep with young girls too.”
It’s tempting to think this will last. Barnard’s Una is an exposed nerve, but she’s in control of the interaction. Ray wonders if she’s there to kill him, and almost looks like he wishes she would. Belyea’s thousand-yard stare grows blanker and blanker as Ray absorbs the body blows.
But as Harrower’s script fills in the backstory, the role reversal begins to take hold. Ray keeps trying to steer the conversation to the present, while Una is determined to conduct a post-mortem. The details are harrowing — and graphic — from the initial grooming to the culmination of his schemes. Ray won’t even say the word “pedophile” (“Those sick bastards — I was never one of them”). To him, this is a romance that got derailed. And far more disturbingly, Una begins to show signs of feeling the same way.
Harrower’s depiction of the reverberations of abuse could easily become exploitative — a play that values a gripping experience above all else. This production certainly delivers the tension, but its most lasting feature is Barnard’s performance, steeled determination melting into painfully unguarded vulnerability. Even during Ray’s monologues, you can’t take your eyes off her, peering for a glimpse of the person who was there before a life was shattered.
Blackbird runs through 6/15 at 18th & Union in the Central District. Tickets are $15-25 (sliding scale for all), available here. Accessibility notes: restroom is gender-neutral, single-stall; theatre can be made wheelchair accessible with a ramp, but the restroom is not — please contact venue ahead of time to ensure smooth access.
Dusty Somers is a lifelong Seattleite whose love of the arts has resulted in a distressingly large physical media collection. Right about now, he’s probably watching a movie, seeing a play or listening to a record. He has covered theatre for City Arts, The Seattle Times, and NWTheatre.