“You left me in love!” Mandy Goldstone ’12 screamed to her partner (Eli Timm ’13) in the ’92 Theater Friday night during Second Stage’s production of David Harrower’s Blackbird. Not an unusual statement in the world of drama, though rarely a follow-up to the line, “How many other twelve-year-olds have you fucked?”
But statutory rape is the issue that Blackbird tackles, and it does so quite successfully, with subtlety and tact. To summarize: Ray (Timm) is a man in his late fifties, working in a dead-end job in a nameless company on the side of a highway. Fifteen years prior to the play’s action he carried on a relationship for several months with a twelve-year-old girl named Una (Goldstone). Now he’s living under an assumed name, and he’s trying to put the past behind him. And Una—now in her twenties and grown up with a vengeance—has suddenly reappeared in his life, showing up unannounced at his workplace.
This production, tastefully directed by Evan DelGaudio ’12, did an excellent job of delivering on the text’s promise, refusing to victimize or vilify either of the people in this complex, nasty, and sometimes terrifying relationship. It would be easy to paint Ray as a nasty pedophiliac villain and Una as his victim looking for closure, but of course reality gets in the way. Una is, frankly, not a nice woman. She’s no longer a twelve-year-old angel, and Goldstone jumped into the beginning of the performance with a cold, bitter spite that was delicious. For his part, Timm did an excellent job of tackling Ray’s selfconflict, trying to recognize the wrongs he’s committed while still moving on with his life—and, in fact, not accepting every ounce of blame himself. This relationship is complicated, and it stands our expectations on their head.
Una is largely the more interesting of the pair in this two-person play, and this really was an opportunity for Goldstone to shine. The tricky part of playing Una (and the part that makes the play so interesting) is that, when she was twelve, she was thoroughly in love with Ray—and she hasn’t fully recovered. At the beginning of the play, she is a woman on a mission; by its end, she no longer knows what she wants. She keeps getting drawn into remembered happiness, then realizing that she’s giving ground to Ray and returning to the attack. It’s not an easy range to play, but Goldstone managed it deftly—even the minutes-long tirade in the middle of the piece seemed natural. This is the first point, too, when we begin to question whether Una’s rage is greater over the fact of the sex or the sense of abandonment she felt when Ray unexpectedly disappeared one night—and it seems to be shifting towards the latter.
Timm’s performance was also excellent, although I feel compelled to admit that I rarely believed that he was closing sixty. His slightly stooped posture and the lines of his face were spot on, but something about his energy didn’t quite complete the piece. At one point, the two danced around on stage kicking trash through the room; a sixty-year-old man would likely be a bit less lithe than Timm’s portrayal. The area Timm shone in was his emotional life: the struggle to defend himself as a man who has had sex with a minor, but refuses to be called a pedophiliac, and the frustration of a man who’s had to abandon everything in the middle of his life and start again—after a prison stint, no less. And has he recovered? In the last few minutes of the play, just as Una and Ray are engaged in a (hot and heavy) reconciliation, another young girl appears: the daughter, allegedly, of a woman Ray knows, who is waiting outside. But do we believe him?
This production also, it’s fair to say, shone technically. The lighting design by Dakota Gardner ’11 was as understated and tasteful as DelGaudio’s direction (the temptation to overplay here must have been strong), and the box set—also designed by DelGaudio—is easily the most complex and competent student creation to appear in the ’92 Theater in recent memory. The costumes, designed by Brenna Galvin ’11, blended seamlessly with the other elements to form a coherent, strikingly unified world. In fact, aside from a few bobbles (the early, extremely challenging staggered lines seemed a bit recitative; Goldstone kicked a bottle into the audience halfway through the performance) this was an excellent production, one I can find little fault with.
But the most significant mark of its success is that this Blackbird provokes some interesting reflections. From the perspective of the public eye, people exist only in spurts. We see a story in a newspaper: a young girl has been raped by a middle-aged man. For most people, the girl will be frozen at twelve; the man will always be a rapist. But while the event may destroy a childhood, it doesn’t destroy the child herself. What happens when the child grows up? What happens when the man does?