‘Blackbird’ sings with tense conflict

Jamie Biondi '12 and Elizabeth Donger '12 in 'Blackbird,' directed by Willa Fitzgerald '13.

On the surface, “Blackbird,” by David Harrower and sponsored by the Yale Drama Coalition, is a tense play about a young woman confronting the man who sexually abused her when she was 12 and he was 40.

The emotional performances of Jamie Biondi ’12 as Ray and Elizabeth Donger ’12 as Una make the audience realize, however, that the play actually concerns an intense romance between the adult and child that resurfaces when Una shows up at Ray’s office 15 years later. As the audience members realize this is not the typical story of a sexual predator and victim, the characters are forced to balance feelings of disgust over the details of the relationship with feelings of compassion for the damaged people on display.

The entirety of the performance is set in a room in Ray’s office building that is coffee-stained and dirty with crumpled wrappers. Director Willa Fitzgerald ’13 has created a sparse setting with harsh overhead lighting that reflects the stark manner in which the characters address and accuse each other. The position of power alternates between the two characters. One minute, a bitter and empowered Una is speaking sharply down to Ray as he shrinks into his chair, while the next, Ray is the one accusing Una as she slumps into the back wall.

This contrast between vulnerability and anger that both Biondi and Donger display gives the play immense depth and propels the conversation forward. Donger employs subtleties that allow her performance to portray Una as a complex character who balances feelings of cold rage and heartbreak. Audience members both respect Una for her strength as she forces Ray to remember his crime, and feel deep sympathy for her when she tells Ray, “I feel like a ghost everywhere I go.” Donger’s dynamic performance leaves little to be desired as she uses her raw emotion to create great intimacy with the audience.

Biondi also impresses with an excellent and believable performance as Ray. Somehow, the audience can watch the 80-minute play that includes the story — and even explicit details — of Ray’s relationship with a 12-year-old, without completely hating him. This is confusing for audience members, who are no doubt disgusted by the idea of a 40-year-old falling in love with a young girl, and that confusion is artfully produced by the humanity in Biondi’s performance. The vulnerability Biondi shows is balanced out by the stern defensiveness he adopts as he tells Una he’s not a child predator or reminds her of her flirting. If only the audience could have seen the reaction on Biondi’s face when Una tells him her account of the night he left her in a hotel room, but he was turned towards the back corner of the stage.

While Una and Ray’s dialogue is intentionally choppy, Fitzgerald achieves a play that flows well and draws the audience in. It’s surprising how invested one becomes in the characters’ outcomes, despite being repulsed by the nature of their relationship. “Blackbird” is so effectively directed and well executed by the cast that is worth the emotional turmoil it provokes in the audience members.

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