Blackbird: A Disturbing Electric Wasteland
Do I know this play? Have I seen it before? Or am I confusing it with another? It seems like there a number of plays that revolve around a young woman revisiting an older man with whom she has had a sexual relationship with, of some sorts. I had convinced myself that this was a professor/student relationship and had prepared myself for the re-encounter delving into the topics of power dynamics and such, so I was very unprepared for the drama that started to unfold in front of me that night on the Belasco stage when I saw David Harrower’s electric and disturbing play, Blackbird.
Not to give too much away, but in a basic way I had the premise almost correct. A young woman, Una (a fragile and charged Michelle Williams) shows up at the work space of her former love, Ray (a captivating Jeff Daniels) to confront and to learn what happened that one fateful evening so long ago. To tell him her story, and to hear what he has to say. The part that I didn’t see coming was that this relationship was 15 years ago, making the young girl 12 years old at the time of the relationship. Sexual abuse. Intense love. Consent. Statutory rape. Denial. Regret. Anger. Abandonment. Utter shame and a complicated acceptance of guilt. On both sides of this pair. Be prepared, these are some of the themes being thrown at us, relentlessly and without mercy.
Blackbird, directed with intense force by Joe Mantello, grabs hold of us and does not give us a chance to get out of this without some squirming in our seats. These two have a lot to say to one another that they have both been trying to understand, deny, or forget these past 15 years, and even the attempts within these 90 minutes to hold back, we know we are going to hear it all. It’s an uncomfortable place we are forced into, one where we would like to just see in black and white, good and evil, villain and victim, but that paint stroke is far too simple even for this illegal relationship. We would like to see the simplicity here, so we can be more comfortable, but thankfully, Harrower has no intention for comfort. He takes us through this relationship and the destruction that is its aftermath.
Jeff Daniels, who performed this role opposite Alison Pill in 2007 at the MTC, gives us one of the most raw and desperate performances I’ve seen to date. He’s swerves left and right, battling for his life and sanity in this dynamic confrontation. He does a miraculous job of making him seem more damaged and human then we would care to see. Williams is harder to pin down. She, as an actor, is once again surprising me with the extreme bravery and uniqueness of her choices. She gives us a woman who seems trapped as a 12 year old girl, but trying hard to be grown up. She’s angry and wild. It’s a complicated performance, a bit uneven here and there, but I will say that what I love about Williams on stage is her drive to move into unchartered territory and throw caution to the wind. She throws her whole child-like body into this play, and only at the curtain call does she return to her adult female body. It’s a shockingly visual and telling moment that allows us to see the talented performance that we just witnessed.
This is not a play to go into lightly, but I applaud the bravery of all involved. It is upsetting, disturbing, and doesn’t allow us to make easy judgements. It’s a story of two people and the waste land that their obsession brings them to, throwing their lives on the floor like trash to be trampled upon.