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Blackbird
by David Harrower
Directed by Annamaria Pileggi
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
February 17, 2018

Elizabeth Berkenmeier, John Pierson
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is known for producing challenging plays, and their latest offering is certainly in that vein. Just reading the plot description for Blackbird gives me the creeps, and the program has a warning regarding its subject matter. This is not an easy play to watch. Still, as directed by Annamaria Pileggi and cast with excellent local performers, this difficult but well-written play makes a thought-provoking impression.

The play begins in the midst of a confrontation. In the stark, litter-strewn breakroom of the company where he works, Ray (John Pierson), a seemingly average office worker, has just seen someone he didn’t think he would ever see again. Una (Elizabeth Birkenmeier), hasn’t seen Ray for 15 years, but the last time they saw each other, he was 40 and she was 12. The nature of their earlier relationship is made clear fairly quickly, as is the fact that Ray served time for sexual relations with a minor. Since his release from prison, Ray has changed his name and started a new life, hoping to never be reminded of his past again, but Una has seen a picture of him with co-workers in a magazine, so she has tracked him down, and this confrontation ensues. What happens is understandably uncomfortable to watch, especially since the nature of their prior relationship is described in detail. The emotions are also on clear display, as both Ray and Una process their feelings about what happened, and about each other. I can’t really describe much else because it would give too much away, but essentially the play is one long, intense conversation. It’s a well-written, believable encounter, but that doesn’t make it any less disturbing, and to a degree, I wonder why the playwright would choose to explore such a relationship in such detail, although it does provide a showcase for the excellent actors here, and I suppose it shows the far-reaching impact of abuse in a direct, confrontational way.

The performances here are extremely strong. The extremely conflicted dynamic between Pierson and Birkenmeier is intense and credible. Although Ray is a difficult character who has done something reprehensible, Pierson plays him in a way that makes him at least somewhat approachable, if not exactly understandible. He’s full of conflict and self-reproach, but also a clear measure of self-excusing. Birkenmeier especially portrays Una’s mixture of anger, hurt, loneliness, and conflict with intense veracity. There’s also a fine performance from Sienna Hahn in a brief appearance as a character listed in the program as “Girl”.

The discomfort of the subject matter and the disturbing nature of the characters’ confrontation is reflected in Patrick Huber’s stark, grey set and sharp lighting. Costumer designer Teresa Doggett has outfitted the characters appropriately, as well. There’s also good work from props designer Jess Stamper and sound designer Pierson. The technical elements of this play aren’t flashy or obvious, but they provide just the right backdrop for the proceedings.

As I’ve already noted, this is a difficult play. It shows a distressing, uncomfortable confrontation on a direct, human scale. Blackbird is definitely not for all audiences, but STLAS has done about as excellent a job with it as I can imagine. It’s a disturbing, challenging, thought-provoking experience.

John Pierson, Elizabeth Berkenmeier
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting Blackbird at the Gaslight Theatre until February 25, 2018

 

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