At a post-show Q & A following the opening night performance of Main Stage West’s Blackbird, director David Lear stated he felt that one of theater’s responsibilities is to make an audience “a little uncomfortable.” He more than succeeds with this production.
The lights come up and through the windows of a darkened employee break room we see two people arguing in a hallway. The door to the breakroom opens, the lights are turned on and the two individuals enter the room. Not much is said, but it is obvious there is history between these two. Are they estranged father and daughter? Ex-lovers? Siblings?
It’s soon revealed that the 50-something Ray (John Shillington) had a sexual relationship with the 20-something Una (Sharia Pierce). However, the “relationship” occurred when Ray was 40 and Una was 12.
Uncomfortable yet? Well, it won’t get any easier over the course of the show’s uninterrupted 80 minutes as the conversation runs the gamut from their first “innocent” meeting to the graphic details of their last evening together. Una has come seeking the answer to a question that’s haunted her while Ray would rather say nothing. He’s paid the legal price for his actions and tried to build a new life, but can that bill ever be paid in full?
Playwright David Harrower paints this picture with a palette full of grays, refusing to color these characters in simple black and white. Ray and Una are damaged individuals, but whether they were damaged before they met or as a result of their meeting is open to interpretation. He makes no excuses for Ray’s actions but dares to make an audience attempt to better understand them. Una is even more complicated. Deceptively written and played at the beginning as sort of an avenging angel, it soon becomes clear she’s not there to punish Ray. She’s there for a sort of closure. Neither of them will get it.
Pierce and Shillington are excellent in what have to be two of the most difficult roles ever played on a local stage. Lear has guided them well in giving their characters depth and complexity, eschewing the easy labels of hero and villain.
Post-show discussions give the audience and the actors a chance to decompress. Opening night’s talkback was almost as fascinating as the play.
Prepare to be angered, challenged, conflicted and ultimately saddened by Blackbird.
Rating (out of 5) ★★★★½