Harrowing ‘Blackbird’ continues Dark & Stormy’s anti-holiday programming tradition

Photo by Rick Spaulding
Luverne Seifert and Sara Marsh in Dark & Stormy’s presentation of Scottish playwright David Harrower’s “Blackbird.”

Anyone who has seen a play by Dark & Stormy Productions in recent years is familiar with room 202 on the second floor of the Grain Belt Warehouse. It has been Sara Marsh’s theater home since 2015, when the company she founded – and for which she serves as artistic director, sometime set designer, director, lead actor, keeper of the donors list and person-of-all-trades – moved in.

It’s a small-ish room in a large building, a blank slate with high ceilings. In previous Dark & Stormy shows, it’s been a living room, a boudoir, a city apartment, a bar in Minnesota in the winter and several places at once, depending on where the actors were standing.

From now until Jan. 5, it’s an employee break room in a nameless building off a highway somewhere undefined, and a scene of personal hell for two people living out an awful moment in their shattered lives.

How’s that for a holiday play?

Dark & Stormy’s presentation of Scottish playwright David Harrower’s “Blackbird” continues Marsh’s mostly unbroken tradition of anti-holiday programming. If what you want is holiday cheer, it’s not for you. But if you’re looking for something that challenges your thinking, treats you like a grownup, stays with you for days after you’ve seen it and fills you with admiration for the actors, “Blackbird” is your ticket.

There’s no stage or curtain in room 202, so you see the whole set when you walk in the door. The floor is covered in trash, sometimes ankle-deep. There’s a cluttered counter, a microwave and a small refrigerator, an overflowing wastebasket and a couple of chairs. Two windows look out on a parking lot, with your car (if you drove) parked somewhere below. It’s a play set in a warehouse, set in a warehouse.

Two actors – Sara Marsh as Una, Luverne Seifert as Ray, though he’s known as Peter – enter through the door that leads to the hallway, the same door you walked in a few moments earlier. Their conversation is stilted and uncomfortable. Single words, short phrases, awkwardly incomplete sentences. The rhythm is akin to a David Mamet play. The script – the words, the timing, the pauses, the repetition – must be a bear to memorize.

It emerges that the meeting was Una’s idea. She showed up at his workplace, asking to see him. He wants this meeting to end. He wants her to leave. He doesn’t know how to get rid of her.

There’s great physical disparity between the two actors. Seifert is a foot taller than Marsh, broader in the shoulders, solid and imposing. He can change in a heartbeat from cuddly to menacing. Marsh is thin and slight, like a young girl. Which Una was 15 years ago, when Ray molested her.

He was 40; she was 12. She’d seen his photograph in a magazine and tracked him down. She’s come alone to confront him and … what else? Make him squirm? Get revenge? Save herself? When Una searches through her bag, Ray grabs it and asks, “Do you want to kill me?”

Set in real time, “Blackbird” is a harrowing (pardon the pun) exploration of the aftereffects of sexual abuse on both parties, abuser and abused. Directed with a sure hand by Michaela Johnson, a recent Yale National Theater Institute graduate (this is her first professional directing gig), it’s 90 minutes of talk, possible truths and likely lies.

Except for very brief moments, Seifert and Marsh are together, explaining, accusing, feinting, deflecting and recalling very different versions of what happened long ago. It’s an emotional tango, a house on fire. You don’t want to watch – it’s so intimate and unsettling, cathartic and creepy – but you can’t look away.

Who holds the power ping-pongs between them. Mostly, it seems, Una does, because Ray’s life as Peter would come crashing down if anyone at his workplace found out about them. After the abuse, after prison, Ray had left town, changed his name and started over. (This was before the creation of the sex offender registry, as Una points out.) After the police were called, after Ray went away, got out and disappeared, Una stayed. Everyone knew who she was. Her friends dropped her. “I lost more than you ever did,” she says, “because I never had time to begin.”

The story of the abuse – how Una’s parents unwittingly brought them together, how he perceived her as headstrong and older than her years, how she believed she loved him – is told in fits and starts, and when it comes together, you’re not sure whom or what to believe. You may start with the rock-solid conviction that it’s just wrong – criminal, in fact, and everyone knows that – for a 40-year-old to have sex with a 12-year-old. But Seifert makes Ray a strangely likable villain. He’s a complex creature, not one-dimensional. And in Una, now a woman of considerable experience, you can see the girl he was attracted to.

For brief moments here and there, it all sort of makes sense. You may think, “Is this actually a love story?” And “If that even crosses my mind, what kind of person am I?”

Two-thirds of the way into “Blackbird,” Harrower gives Una a brutal 1,400-word monologue – her version of what happened on the night she and Ray spent together, and after – that’s worth bringing back the Ivey Awards, if only to honor Marsh for getting through it so masterfully. When Una tells Ray what happened to her parents at the trial, and what the judge said about her during the trail, you want to groan. Except you know that similar things are said today about girls (and women) abused by men.

You may wonder (we did) why Harrower called this play “Blackbird.” The only thing we can think of is Harrower, a Scotsman, must know the Beatles’ song by that title. “Blackbird singing in the dead of night/Take these broken wings and learn to fly … Take these sunken eyes and learn to see/All your life/You were only waiting for this moment to be free.” Except Una isn’t free. Neither is Ray. And there’s a plot twist that throws everything before into question. We’ll leave it at that.

“Blackbird” continues at the Grain Belt Warehouse through Jan. 5. All shows begin at 8 p.m. FMI and tickets ($15-39); 612-401-4506.

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