Tuesday, July 14, 2009
Blackbird at Victory Gardens
The lobby of the Victory Gardens Biograph Theater buzzed with excitement last night. Was it the thrill of being so close to the alley where John Dillinger, brought back to life in theaters this week by Michael Mann and Johnny Depp, met his maker? Was it the presence of John Mahoney, Marg Helgenberger and Tony winner Deanna Dunagan in the crowd? Hometown actor William Petersen from CSI returning to the Chicago stage up close and personal? The announcement of no intermission and no late seating that adds a promise of intense intimacy? All this. Add the zing of anticipation over the opening of the play that amazed the London theater community by beating out the favored Frost/Nixon and Tom Stoppard's Rock 'n' Roll to win the 2007 Olivier Award. Throw in the promise of a shocking ending and you've got Blackbird.
What a daring, gripping show. Petersen is strong as Ray/Peter, a dental-supply middle manager pushing 60, but Mattie Hawkinson, as the woman with whom he embarked on an illicit affair when she was a girl, is a marvel. Hawkinson evokes Mary Louise Parker in the delicacy of her features and her stuttery yet impassioned speech, but all comparisons slip away as she mesmerizes on her own terms.
Of all the challenging topics for a playwright, finding an alternative to revulsion when addressing child molestation can't have much equal. And yet, the taboo subject has been brilliantly done. Lolita and How I Learned to Drive peeked into the minds of adults sexually attracted to children and gave us a glimpse of the humanity behind the monstrous actions.
In Blackbird, as the characters work through spirals of guilt, accusation, self-loathing, confusion, longing and rage, I found myself shifting sympathies, even against my better nature. Like an optical illusion that switches from a near kiss to a hard goblet, the two characters seem victim and oppressor in one moment, then ex-lovers in another. It's an uncomfortable process to go through, brilliantly created by the writing and the effortless performances.
When Hawkinson's barrage of questions take a paranoid turn, she transforms into a threatening presence, even as she girlishly adjusts a dress that seems too adult for her. Then more of the past and bits of the present are revealed and her paranoia becomes our own. The simplest questions, "Your shorts?" "Are you a janitor?" and most painfully, "Do you have children?" become the stuff of ambiguity and anguish.
Blackbird runs through August 9.
Here is an excerpt from early in the play and here is the Tribune critic Chris Jones's excellent review.