Celebrated filmmaker Roman Polanski has endured horror and suffering in his lifetime. A Holocaust survivor who made a life for himself in America, Polanski was victimized again as his wife, Sharon Tate, was brutally murdered by the Manson family in 1969. He persevered, channeled his anguish through his work and continued on to become one of the most respected and celebrated directors of his generation. However, none of his achievements will stand without an eternal footnote – in 1977, by his own admission, he sexually assaulted a 13-year-old girl and fled the country to evade prosecution. The specter of that event has followed and haunted Polanski to this day, regardless of his subsequent achievements and even the tacit forgiveness by his victim. Would Polanski’s life be any different had he been apprehended and served time? Would he be able to move onward, as he has done, and continue to live a meaningful life without living in the shadow of what society universally deems an unforgivable offense? No matter our opinion, and regardless of Polanski’s life since 1977, there are only two people who can truly speak to the lifelong effects of his actions and they are the man and his victim. The rest of us see only what Polanski and the now 50-year-old victim want us to see. If, after all this time, the two wound up in a room together, alone, what conversation could possibly ensue?
A similar scenario is explored in David Harrower’s compelling Blackbird, now running at The Gamm through June 1. Jim O’Brien is Ray, a man making a simple life for himself in a less than satisfactory management position at a vague factory somewhere in generic America. Madeleine Lambert is Una, a young woman who, at the age of 12, entered into a sexual relationship with Ray several years prior. She tracks down Ray (who has changed his name to obscure his past) via a photograph in a trade magazine and shows up unannounced toward the end of his workday to finally confront the man who ruined her life and then disappeared to jail, never to be seen again. What follows is an intriguing encounter in which we are continuously dosed with an uncomfortable mixture of anger and sympathy for both of these characters.
Even before the play starts, we are set off guard by Jessica Hill’s ambitious two-story set. A litter-strewn breakroom looks out onto a chemical engineering plant that resembles Frankenstein’s brewhouse, pulsing with random flashes of pink light and portending something awful. Alex Eisenberg’s preshow sound design blends songs of topical importance to the plot with spoken word elements that add to the menacing atmosphere. Frosted glass doors lead out to the hallway and beyond, offering chances for lighting designer Matthew Terry to silhouette actors to chilling effect. Blackbird’s production team has managed to create antiseptic clutter, an attempt at sterility encroached by garbage that oozes out around the edges. This is Ray’s life, of course, and the second Una enters and begins the confrontation she has been waiting for years to have, we see the garbage begin to pile up and cleanliness is revealed as illusion.
O’Brien and Lambert together are a well-oiled machine, maintaining a pace that director Tony Estrella carefully reins in when needed. The voices are raised almost from the first minute and one could tune out the noise quickly if the performances weren’t as deft and the story so sadly fascinating. As the story unfolds we are never past judging Ray, but we are forced into an emotional stalemate of sorts. As the intricacies of their relationship are laid out, there is a catharsis, if not a closure for the pair. And, as obvious as the garbage metaphor is we don’t feel cheated by predicting the inevitable. Ray and Una wallow in their past to the point of devastation, tossing literal and mental detritus about until they are raw. The mess, of course, cannot be easily contained and, to Harrower’s credit, there is no button ending that leaves everyone happy. With the cameo appearance of young Ally Gower, a new chapter in Ray and Una’s tragic life unfolds and we are left feeling angry, hurt and confused.
For audiences who prefer a clean ending or wish to see storylines that neatly unravel to a satisfactory conclusion, Blackbird is not a good choice. Presented with lighter production value and with a lesser cast, the show would simply be an affront as Ray and Una do not approach each other lightly. Estrella and cast are not aiming for nuance and subtlety here; this scenario could never play out in that fashion and they choose to embrace this factor rather than try and smooth the edges. Some may feel that this presentation suffers in that regard, but we leave Blackbird with a wide range of feelings and for that, The Gamm needs no forgiveness.
Blackbird runs through June 1st at the Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre, 172 Exchange St., Pawtucket. For more information and ticketing call 401-723-4266, or visit gammtheatre.org.