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Lost Boundaries

One man, one woman, and the absolutely uncomfortable fact of their relationship

Megan Anderson and David Parkes square off in the break room.

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 5/26/2010

Blackbird

By David Harrower

Through June 13 at Everyman Theatre

Una (Megan Anderson), a 27-year-old woman, has shown up unexpectedly at a pharmaceutical company, and Peter (David Parkes), a 55-year-old middle manager there, is not happy to see her. He pushes her into the employee lounge and immediately urges her to go away. It doesn't take very long for playwright David Harrower to dispel the first layer of suspense, for Una reminds Peter that he was once named Ray and once went to jail for six years after sleeping with her when she was 12.

You immediately think you know where Blackbird is going, for you've all encountered dozens of plays, movies, and novels where a child-abuse victim confronts her abuser many years later. But that confrontation usually comes at the end, not at the beginning. That's the first hint that the Scottish playwright has something other than the usual vengeful-victim story in mind here. What he has in mind is far more subtle and disturbing.

Neither Harrower nor director Derek Goldman is trying to justify a 40-year-old man sleeping with a 12-year-old girl; even Peter acknowledges that that's a crime. But crimes are more often a product of misguided passion than of cynical calculation, and that's certainly the case here. An eager-to-grow-up young girl develops a huge crush on a lonely adult, and the man responds more than he should. How did they cross the line between affection and transgression? Can they ever get back on the safe side of that boundary?

These are not comfortable questions, and the current Everyman Theatre production makes them more uncomfortable still, thanks to the emotionally raw performances of Parkes and especially Anderson. It's bad enough when they snarl accusations at each other, but it's even worse when the old attractions flare up and they start to flirt.

The onlooker is likely to feel soiled, and set designer James Fouchard reinforces that by turning the employee lounge into a vision of workplace hell. Overhead fluorescent bulbs flicker through a water-stained drop ceiling; the aluminum-frame chairs, plastic-topped tables, and industrial gray carpet are littered with paper cups, used napkins, and crumpled bags. More than once Una calls it "a pigsty," and it is the perfect setting for a story about unchecked animal instincts.

Fifteen years earlier, they had been neighbors who made plans to meet in a public park. Una had dashed into the bushes and called out again and again, "Ray, come on, I'm waiting." Strangers raised their eyebrows as he sat on a park bench. Should he, a grown man, get down on his hands and knees and crawl into the bushes like a dog? He shouldn't, he knew, but he wanted to.

With her sensible blue sweater, pinned-back brown hair, and damp eyes, Una appears every bit the angry, innocent victim in the early scenes. Anderson is very good in this guise, but she's even better when she gradually allows cracks to appear in her façade, admitting her own desires without giving up her anger. When a tremor ripples through her lean frame, you can't tell if it's an echo of an old lust or a recent fury-or both. Only a great actress can radiate such opposing emotions so strongly at the same time.

Peter is wearing the uniform of middle management-white shirt, muted tie, brown slacks-and at first he tries to fend off his unexpected visitor with brusque phrases about deadlines to meet and meetings to attend. But Parkes keeps swallowing his own sentences and interrupting himself with alternate thoughts, as if his character were unsure to behave as Peter the manager or as Ray the sinner. Harrower allows Peter and Una to slowly but steadily shed their defenses, and by the end of the show, his tieless, untucked shirt has been splattered with cola and her sweater and shoes have been cast aside. And the lounge has become only messier.

The play's themes remain just as messy. Neither the playwright, the director, nor the two actors are willing to draw a clear line between genuine feeling and betrayal. As much as you'd like it to, that line does not exist. Blackbird is worth seeing precisely because it makes that disturbing, unsatisfactory point so powerfully.

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