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Alone in the Dark

Two excellent peformances anchor this emotionally powerful experience

All Photos Everyman Theatre
Dawn Ursula impatiently waits at home for her kidnapped husband.

By Anna Ditkoff | Posted 2/4/2010

Two Rooms

By Lee Blessing

Through Feb. 21 at Everyman Theatre

I can't remember the last time I cried during a play. I'm not the type that gets teary easily, but Two Rooms at Everyman Theatre left me wiping my eyes with the back of my hands as the lights went up.

Lee Blessing's play is a deeply powerful work about an American teacher in Beirut, who is kidnapped by terrorists, and his wife left waiting at home for his return. Its power comes from unexpected places. It comes from the humor that teacher Michael (Clinton Brandhagen) uses while detailing his thoughts and experiences in imaginary letters to his wife Lanie (Dawn Ursula). It's in the anger that crowds out sadness as Lanie waits for someone to do something, anything, to bring Michael home. It's in the electric chemistry between Brandhagen and Ursula, a chemistry palpable despite the fact that the two actors share almost no stage time. And it's in the way that Blessing manages to make a situation so foreign and remote feel so real and understandable that you can't help but imagine yourself in Lanie and Michael's positions.

Two Rooms opens with a disheveled and bruised Michael kneeling on the floor. He is blindfolded and handcuffed, and he talks to his wife as though he is dictating a letter. He and Lanie lived and taught in Beirut even as the city was disintegrating around them. Michael and a friend were taken hostage. It is a testament to Brandhagen's skills that he is able to connect with the audience despite being largely immobile with his eyes covered, but Michael immediately feels like a real person, someone you would be friends with. It's the matter-of-fact way he talks about his abduction and imprisonment. Michael recounts his friend pulling out a small gun for protection during the kidnapping as though "all those kidnappers would take one look at this mighty weapon of the West, drop their AK-47s and flee. Run! It's a trap! He's got a tiny gun!" With someone else playing Michael this remembrance could have sounded bitter, but Brandhagen plays it as though he is simply marveling at the situation's absurdity.

Lanie, menwhile, has returned home to wait—and wait and wait—for Michael's release. His captors have delivered no demands, and weekly visits with Lanie by Ellen (Deborah Hazlett), a State Department representative, reveal that the government knows little about what is happening to Michael and are willing to tell even less. Lanie has removed all the furniture from Michael's study, leaving nothing in the room but a mat. She spends nearly all her time there, trying to see the world as Michael sees it, to feel close to him. Lanie must also decide whether to voice her anger at the government's lack of action to reporter Walker (Tim Getman) or to stay quiet and obedient in the room. Lanie is simultaneously fiercly strong and break-at-a-breath fragile. But we also see Lanie's softness as she imagines talking to her husband, touching his face.

Clinton Brandhagen waits for rescue in Two Rooms.

Blessing's Two Rooms was first published in 1987, but remains relevant today, a sad comment on how little U.S./Middle East relations have progressed since. What is most impressive about it is how Blessing takes a situation of relentless horror and makes it so recognizable by making Lanie and Michael so complex and real. Much of the credit for that goes to the excellent performances by Ursula and Brandhagen, and Getman and Hazlett live up to the high bar set by the two leads.

Blessing also gets credit for not turning Two Rooms into a show about the bad Arabs and the good Americans. Americans are bad and good in this play and the conflict in the Middle East is depicted as the morally and logistically complicated thing it is. Even Michael begins to understand his captors' point of view. The austerity of the set designed by Daniel Ettinger offers no distractions from the play or performances and director Vincent Lancisi manages to make a play that largely consists of two people sitting in two rooms talking to the air dynamic.

The lone quibble is the sound design. Christopher Baine punctuates certain scenes with a crashing sound that feels like the duh-duh-duh following a melodramatic reveal—the sort of sopa-opera noise that would follow an actress braying, I'm not Sara, I'm her evil twin Jenny. It is painfully out of place in such a grounded play.

Two Rooms may not qualify as a fun night at the theater, but a play this beautiful, this meaningful, and this heartfelt is a testament to why the art of theater persists.

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