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'BLACKBIRD' Flies Despite Heavy Material

victory gardens premiere
of David Harrowers
is a
a blunt
anguished success

"Fifteen years after their passionate love affair when he was 40 and she was a minor, Ray and Una reunite at his place of work."

This vague plot synopsis is the only prior knowledge an audience member needs when walking into Victory Garden's Chicago premiere of BLACKBIRD.  What unfolds is a gut-wrenching and shockingly bold evening lingering somewhere within the Grey Zone.  A zone where no one's wrong and no one's right, no one wins and no one looses.  A zone that demands attention, understanding, sympathy, and yet, stern moral judgement.

Up against stiff competition from Peter Morgan's FROST/NIXON and Tom Stoppard's ROCK 'N ROLL, Harrower's 2-person cat & mouse tennis match about child abuse won London's 2007 Best New Play Olivier Award.  What Harrower accomplishes in BLACKBIRD (British slang for "jail bait") is a script littered with loose textual restrains, free of punctuation and ripe with repetition; an actor's dream come true in terms of exploration and interruption.

It is never quite clear why Una (Mattie Hawkinson) seeks out Ray (William Peterson) 15 years after their illegal affair, but to call Ms. Hawkinson's performance merely "complex" would be an insult.  Seemingly channeling ANGELS IN AMERICA's distraught Harper Pitt, Hawkinson jumps back and forth from adolescent despair to accusatory power.  She is a broken woman, yet, with the strength to hold her ghostly presence over Ray with crippling force.  In an overall unfunny play, Hawkinson serves up the evening's few hight-hearted lines with biting bitter irony.  Peterson, a Chicago theatre regular before Hollywood swept him away, returns to Victory Gardens in a vehicle picked specifically for him by director Dennis Zacek.  Other than saying "phenomenal" (which he is), it is difficult to categorize Peterson's Ray.  His initial shock in encountering Una is debilitating, yet he holds his own when she refuses to leave.  Harrower's text and Peterson's Everyman performance teeters on the mysteriously unknown.  It is terribly easy to believe in his innocence, all the while fully knowing the ugly guilty truth.  The details of their sordid affair are vividly graphic, but the intimacy created by Peterson and Hawkinson is startling in and of itself. 

The script's accuracy to actual speech was slightly jarring for the first several moments (moreso in Ms. Hawkinson's performance), but the disjointed like manner in which Ray and Una converse for their 90-minute reunion somehow manages to flow with cloudy crystal clarity.  A clarity mimicked in Dean Taucher's highly realist set, surrounded in hazy glass bricks.  Distorting what's happening from the inside out, and vice versa.  His beige door, ominously placed upstage center, becomes a looming third character.  A door which anyone, or anything, can pass through at any given moment.  Peterson and Hawkinson, under the tense pace setting direction of Zacek, transform Ray's nondescript break room into a clutteRed Pressure cooker from an illicit past.

BLACKBIRD runs now through August 16th.  To purchase tickets, call the Victory Gardens box office, 773-871-3000, buy tickets online at or stop by the Victory Gardens Biograph Theater box office, 2433 N. Lincoln Avenue, Chicago.

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From This Author William Panek