Blackbird Exquisitely Striking and Uncomfortable

Stephen Spencer as Ray and Fannie Hungerford as Una

By James E. Trainor III

Iowa City – Fifteen years have passed since Ray and Una’s illicit relationship. Though he now has a new life with a different name and she is now a grown woman, it is clear they have not grown past the damage that was done back then. When Una suddenly sees Ray’s photo in a trade magazine and drives to his workplace to confront him, the conversation opens deep scars that have never truly healed. The question is raised: can either party ever be healthy or normal again?

David Harrower’s Blackbird is an intense drama that examines the long-term effects of child abuse. Riverside’s production, directed by Margaret Eginton, takes a frank but expressive approach to the material. The honest acting, bold direction, and striking design choices combine to create a truly powerful piece of theatre.

Harrower’s play is based on the crimes of Tony Studebaker, an American man who met a 11-year-old girl British girl on the internet and eventually abducted her, having sex with her in a hotel in Paris before he was arrested. Harrower’s play imagines the pair fifteen years in the future, asking whether the man can atone for his past and whether the girl can ever outlive her abuse. The play has seen numerous productions all over the world since its first performance at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2005.

The action begins as Ray (Stephen Spencer) ushers Una (Fannie Hungerford) into the break room, hiding her away from his coworkers and giving her a chance to have a private conversation with him. From the first word — “Shock?” — their conversation is stilted and rushed; this is an encounter each of them dreaded but never dreamed would occur. He tells her she wasted her time coming out here; there’s nothing they could possibly say to each other. She tells him she’s been obsessed, filled with rage, writing unsent letters about the violence she’d like to do to him. He tells her she can’t go on living in the past. She tells him her parents punished her, never moving, keeping her in the same house with the memories and the stares. He tells her he’s done his time, been humiliated, disgraced. She tells him she punished her parents, having sex with a shocking 83 men in the years since he molested her. He tells her that it wasn’t about sex, that he saw something beautiful in her, a real connection. She tells him he’s fooling himself.

“I was a stupid girl… I wanted you to be my boyfriend… all you had to do was tell my parents… you let it start.”

With Una consumed with rage and Ray unwilling to face what he’s done to her, the conversation is circular, painful, and intensely uncomfortable. Aside from the dramatic story, though, Harrower’s play brings up some important moral questions, which Eginton does a great job of communicating. Does Una have the right to confront Ray in this way? Is there anything that can be gained by punishing him after all this time? Does he have to listen to her? The legal system, today, would keep them apart: he would be forbidden from contacting her. But she’s the instigator here, and, ironically, is now a powerful threat to the man that ruined her life — she may be coming to kill him, or to expose him to his new friends, his new lover.

At the same time, we’re forced to examine Una’s emotional health. What can she do to get over these events, which damaged her trust at so crucial an age? She’s holding her anger so tightly, and meeting Ray, who is more defensive than apologetic, seems to be making it worse. Can she have a normal relationship? Is she ruined forever? At one point, Ray leaves the room, and she does an evocative dance to herself, movements at once calming and aggressively sexual. The moment brings these themes to the forefront: here she is, in the prime of her life, but her sexuality is held hostage by the memory of being betrayed and left alone in a motel all those years ago. Can she ever trust and love someone? Did Ray merely take away her childhood, or her entire love life?

The work the actors put into building full, honest characters makes these ideas palpable. From the beginning, the physical details show the relationship very clearly. Hungerford’s posture is held tight; her leg shakes in anger. Spencer stands his ground but leans away from her, as if he might run away at any moment. In each actor’s portrayal, we can see the person the character was fifteen years ago — the people they’re still stuck being. As Una tells the story from her perspective, we can see in Hungerford’s eyes and in her smile the girlish whimsy that led her to idolize Ray in the first place. In Spencer’s portrayal we see years of denial and emotional immaturity, and it’s believable that this man could perpetrate these crimes.

The direction isn’t strictly realistic; the intense back-and-forth of this conversation is eased a bit by short segues, where the actors’ movements, lighting changes, and some well-chosen scoring (sound design by Drew Bielinski and Margaret Eginton) say more about the situation than words alone could. There are also some striking images within the action itself, as when Una first enters and Ray tries to insist it’s not her. Una marches downstage to the table, calmly opens a shaker of salt, and dumps it onto the floor.

“How many twelve-year-old girls have you had sex with?” she asks, metaphorically pouring salt on his wounds while adding to the grime and clutter of the break room. Later, after they rehash the past, she tries to instigate sex, and they engage in a sort of slow, expressionistic dance. She climbs on top of him, and though the moment is very uncomfortable it’s also a very powerful image: she’s back where she began, but this time with the sexual power of a grown woman. There’s a lot of talk of “status” throughout the play, and this staging visually communicates Una’s desperate struggle to assert control.

The design elements help Eginton fully realize this highly emotional story. Doug Anderson’s set used a great deal of the stage space, pushing the back wall nearly as far back as possible and giving the actors a lot of room to play in. The color choices — a lot of red and white with only a smattering of other colors, gave the impression of a stark, oppressive environment. The lighting design, by Courtney Schmitz Watson, plays well off this stage. At times the set is fully bathed in soft white light, reflecting off the floor and giving the place a realistic feel of a too-bright industrial break room in the middle of the night. At times it switches to eerie side lighting, giving the sense of an interrogation room. When the characters lose themselves in memory, colored back lighting sets the tone simply and effectively.

The final moments of the play, after we’ve fully explored these characters and it seems there’s nothing more to say, twist the story in a shocking and dreadful way. A third character enters — Ray’s girlfriend’s daughter, played by Addie Bass. Between the costume (by Osean Perez) and some very effective acting and direction, the implication is made very clear in Bass’ brief time on stage: the girl is a shadow of Una’s former self, and she adores Ray, just the way Una did when she was twelve. Suddenly the themes explored in the show are very vividly real: Ray, who has never quite shown us that he’s come to terms with what he did, may be in a position to do it again. Una desperately pleads to talk to Ray’s new family, to make them aware of the danger, but he shuts her down. The final moments, as Una stands horrified onstage and the girl is heard singing offstage, are beautifully acted and directed, and leave us with a somber and chilling reminder of just how much pain there is in the modern world.

Riverside’s production of Blackbird runs through April 21, Thursdays—Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Tickets $15-28, riversidetheater.org.

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