Exactly how human a face are you willing to put on a convicted child molester? And how will you respond when a playwright questions the possible culpability of both parties to the act?
For those are playwright David Harrower's objectives in Blackbird, a two-person drama inspired by a 2003 case that originated in Jacksonville, N.C. After gradually gaining the trust of an 11-year-old British girl through chat room sessions and slowly turning their conversations toward sex—a predatory behavior called "child sexual grooming," associated with pedophilia—a U.S. Marine named Toby Studebaker left Camp Lejeune, flew to London and took the girl to Paris without her parents' knowledge. After an international manhunt, she returned home, and Studebaker served four years in an English prison before starting an 11-year sentence in the U.S. In the aftermath, the U.K. passed new laws banning child sexual grooming online.
Yes, the reality of the case on which Blackbird is based differs markedly from the back story Harrower uses to fuel a confrontation some 15 years after Ray, a 41-year-old neighbor, sexually appropriated and abducted Una, a 12-year-old girl with a three-month crush on him. Here, Ray has been able to successfully change his name and start his life over—as much as a life can be restarted in one's mid-50s—as a manager at a medical manufacturing plant. After a lengthy search, Una has finally tracked him down. Their confrontation takes place in a dingy, trash-strewn break room—obviously a metaphor for the disarray in both of their lives.
But what follows is something of a disappointment. Una has come to have some questions answered, to slowly turn the knife and turn the tables, and to threaten Ray with exposure: all moments that could have easily been predicted, and to which Harrower adds little.
As both characters struggle to connect across the believably shattered dialogue, Una also reveals that she's approached Ray in order to reframe a loss she has tried to cope with since the age of 12—another trope that's become predictable enough in therapeutic theater. No, the 27-year-old woman hasn't come that far from the damaged adolescent. Then we wonder how far Ray has actually come—until we find out, to something less than absolute surprise, given the setup.
With discerning performances by Alessandra Colaianni as Una, and Jay O'Berski as Ray, Blackbird shouldn't have the taste of a twice-told tale. As with The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?, we're once again confronted with a man caught in the tongs of love—and apparently unable to resist the feelings he has for an illegal infatuation. But the solipsism of obsessive love, ably mocked in Albee's work, is considerably less amusing when its focus is a girl in the sixth grade. The mental illness required for an adult to actually consummate those sexual acts remains too whitewashed—and too inexcusably excused by Una's own account of her flirtations.
The failings of Blackbird lie in a failure of the imagination, possibly with director Michael O'Foghludha, definitely with playwright David Harrower. They've brought us a Ray who is basically a nice guy ... with a hitch. I'm not convinced that so convenient a person actually exists beyond the constraints of this uncertain script.