After a couple years of making some seriously craptastic play selections and casting decisions, it looks like Artists Repertory Theatre might finally be turning this ship around. With their season opener, Scottish playwright David Harrower's Blackbird, they've finally managed to select a contemporary, relevant, and challenging play—and cast it with actors who don't chew the scenery and spit it back out onto the laps of their paying customers.
Blackbird, directed by JoAnn Johnson, takes an old favorite—statutory rape—and investigates and complicates it. Sure, it's a topic that white men in late middle age have been fantasizing about calling "theater" for centuries—but Harrower handles it masterfully. In Blackbird, nothing is as simple as common laws or morals indicate—everyone involved shares both guilt and innocence.
Fifteen years ago, 40-year-old Ray (Allen Nause) made friends with his neighbor's 12-year-old daughter, Una (Amaya Villazan). Una idolized Ray and chased him, as adolescent girls are prone to do. Ray, giving in to whatever weakness gripped him at the moment, let himself be taken—and for three months, they carried on an increasingly intimate affair.
As the play opens, Una—now a woman—has found Ray, and confronts him. Their affair was discovered, Ray was prosecuted, and after a stint in prison, he left town, changed his name, and tried to start over. Una didn't leave, though, and has spent the last 15 years alternately shamed and pitied, trying to come to grips with something she was too young to fully understand.
It's a sharp, well-written script that mingles Mamet-like brevity with Pinter-like pauses, but has a rhythm and style all its own. Harrower raises questions but doesn't try to answer them, and director Johnson masterfully guides Nause and Villazan to fully inhabit their characters. The show isn't perfect—Nause isn't entirely at ease with some of his language and Villazan is prone to overacting during some of her longer monologues—but even despite these weaknesses, they carry the audience completely into the world of the story. Filing out, the audience isn't discussing the performances. They are debating the story and trying to answer questions—a testament to an incredibly solid production that reminds us of what Artists Rep has been before, and will hopefully continue to be from now on.