BWW Reviews: The Gamm Ends Season With Exceptional, Breathtaking BLACKBIRD
Recently, Yankee Magazine, in their "Editors' Choice Best of New England 201"4 issue, awarded the title of "Best Intimate Theatre" to Rhode Island's own Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre. The Gamm's home in Pawtucket is intimate, there's no argument about that, a perfectly sized and perfectly utilized theatrical space. Proximity with the audience can at times be a risky bet, a chance for a company to live or die by the sword of theater that is very up close and personal. In the case of the Gamm, it is a bet they always win. Just one example is this season's final play, Blackbird, which again showcases how the space's intimacy can and does make great theater even more powerful and impactful.
David Harrower's play, intimate in its own right, with minimal set and only two characters, sneaks up on an audience, in a sense. That is, it sneaks up on you like a freight train. You may not know what's coming, but when it hits you, you're going to feel it. And what you feel for these two characters runs the emotional gamut, everything from curiosity to suspicion to hate to sadness and pity. To say too much about the plot would be to spoil much of the play's enjoyment, but I will tell you that all of those emotions arise from what happens when two people, Ray and Una, try to deal with a traumatic and devastating experience they shared in the past, when Ray was forty and Una was only twelve.
While Harrower has built the foundation, the story, of these two people and their shared past, it's director Tony Estrella who leads the production which brings the story to life. Estrella creates a palpable feeling of discomfort and awkwardness right from the play's first moments. His staging ratchets up the suspense and keeps it there, holding tight onto the audience, keeping their attention and focus on every movement and moment of the play. His actors pace and prowl the stage but their movements never feel forced or fake. The tension between them always feels real and the play's pace always tends toward the natural and unhurried.
Estrella's two actors give magnificent performances as their characters wage a war against each other and themselves. Anyone who ever makes the mistake of thinking that acting is easy should see a play like this one, where the actors are left exhausted and spent, having given everything they had for the performance, for the successful achievement of a part played perfectly on stage.
Jim O'Brien plays Ray, a man who has tried to create a new existence for himself after a life-altering event which put him in jail for a number of years. After dealing with the fallout of his actions for some time, he changed his name and built a life. The arrival of Una sends that life spinning back out of control as he's forced to deal with everything all over again. O'Brien's performance is nuanced and believable, every emotion ringing true. He crafts a character who begins to disgusts the audience in one moment while gaining their sympathy in the next. Ray is a man who is still conflicted and still fighting inner turmoil and O'Brien is able to bring all of that conflict and turmoil to a very human light.
His equal onstage is Madeleine Lambert, giving what is undeniably one of the best performances of the year, as Una. A woman devastated by the events of her life when she was not yet a teenager, Una is still trying to find answers and make sense out of what happened and how to move forward. To say Lambert is mesmerizing would be a huge understatement. She goes beyond that to absolutely command the audience's attention and keep them hanging on her every word. Her charisma and talent as an actress is as unstoppable as Una's need to figure out what really happened to her and why.
As these two talented actors demonstrate their craft, they are surrounded by the Gamm's always-top-notch technical artistry. Jessica Hill's set is perfect, a factory break room that could be in any factory, in any place. These are two people who could be any one we know, really, and the bleak, dirty room, could be in any factory near where we call home. Marilyn Salvatore's costumes and Matthew Terry's lights complement the set and the story as a whole just as perfectly.
All working together, from director to designers, Blackbird is a production that works perfectly in the Gamm's intimate space. The audience is forced to see, up close and personal, the horrors, as well as the joys, as brief as they are, felt by the two characters. You can't run and hide in the last row the way you can in an enormous, four hundred seat theater. There is no shying away from the disturbing, riveting and vital scenes which play out on stage. Which is good, because they are the kind of perfectly created theatrical moments that are the building blocks of great theater, at the Gamm or anywhere else.
Blackbird runs through Sunday, June 1st at the Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre, located at 172 Exchange Street in Pawtucket, RI. Performances are Tuesdays (except for the 13th) through Thursdays at 7pm; Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm; and Sundays at 2pm and 7pm. Tickets are $38 and $48 (depending on day/time) and may be purchased through their website at www.gammtheatre.org or by calling the box office at 401-723-4266.
*Blackbird is suitable for mature audiences only.