by Gail M. Burns, August 2006
Michael Wells, a history professor at the American University in Beirut, is being held hostage by Shiite Muslim extremists. Back at home, his wife Lainie, a naturalist, has stripped his home office bare and sits in it constantly, trying to stay connected to Michael physically, emotionally, and spiritually. She is being pressured by Ellen Van Oss, a representative of the U.S. State Department, and Walker Harris, a journalist, each of whom believes they know what will keep Michael safe and help get him released.
This is not a news story I snagged off of the wire service. This is the plot of Lee Blessing’s play Two Rooms currently being staged at the Chester Theatre Company. It was written in 1988. That it could be today’s news story is both depressing and alarming.
When I turned on the news after I got home from seeing Two Rooms on August 3, 2006, I was informed by Diane Sawyer that it had been the bloodiest day (so far) for Israel in the current conflict.
In the play Blessing spells out clearly and dispassionately the facts that very few Americans understood eighteen years – that we are loathed and despised by many people simply because we are American. On September 11, 2001, that was made abundantly clear, and yet nothing has changed. If anything, the situation is considerably worse than it was in 1988 or 2001, or even last month.
But Two Rooms is not about politics, it is about people. Four imperfect, average people thrust into a maddening and unjust situation over which they have no control. Under this kind of pressure, it is no wonder that each of them makes mistakes as they try to cope, and that each of them has moments of strength and heroism.
Blessing has written the play tightly in brief scenes that move you through several years of Michael’s captivity. Byam Stevens has directed a top-notch cast in equally tightly controlled dances around the miniscule, asymmetrical empty space set designer Michael Ostaszewski and lighting designer Lara Dubin have carved out on the Chester stage. The set serves as both of the physical rooms referred to in the title – Michael’s study at home and the various rooms where he is imprisoned in Beirut. But it also represents the two rooms of Michael and Lainie’s minds as they imagine and remember each other to stay alive and sane.
The last word of this play is “devotion” and that is an exact description of Lainie (Paula Burton) and Michael’s (Jay Stratton) relationship. Married an unspecified length of time they have no children, only each other and their work. Michael’s kidnapping causes them both to realize that their work is futile and meaningless, that all that matters is each other.
While Michael has nothing but his thoughts and memories of Lainie, she must clear a space in which to find him. All the physical things a capitalist society makes us believe are necessary to life only hold Lainie back from communion with Michael, so she strips his study bare and sits in it, seeking a clear path towards him where none can exist.
As played by Stratton, Michael is the happiest and most optimistic character on the stage. Beneath his blindfold, which he wears for much of the first half of the play, Stratton is always smiling as he discovers the wonders to be found inside his own mind. While the other characters have moments when their words and actions are obviously inappropriate – driven by anger or pain or professionalism or ambition – Stratton must make Michael likeable, and he succeeds. Everyone roots for his survival and release, even as it becomes apparent that a happy ending is not in the cards.
While Michael survives on hope, Ellen (Geneva Carr), who states relentlessly that she dispenses hope on behalf of the United States of America, exists in a world beyond hope, a world where “a probable impossibility is to be preferred to a thing improbable and yet possible.” (Aristole, Poetics) Michael’s release falls into the latter category. Carr is a perky little blonde with big blue eyes. Her face is warm and innocent. This is a clever bit of casting. Although she wears a buttoned-up black power suit, you look at Carr and want Ellen to be sympathetic to Lainie, but she is all business. One of the most chilling scenes in the play comes at the beginning of the second act when Carr sits demurely on a ladder-backed Shaker chair, a cup of English Breakfast tea balanced on a saucer in one hand, and narrates a slide show which explains who the enemy is and why they must be stopped.
Lainie’s situation is, obviously, the most agonizing. Michael knows where he is and where she is and that she is alive and well and waiting for him. Lainie knows nothing, and for political reasons Ellen cannot tell her anything, if she knows anything, which she may not. Burton brings Lainie’s frustration vividly to life and makes it clear why Lainie makes her seemingly odd choices – to strip Michael’s study bare and sit in it, to take a leave of absence from her job and sit in the marsh watching warblers, to seek comfort from Walker Harris (Matthew Floyd Miller) while Michael is alive and to reject him when she knows Michael will never come home to her. You can understand why Michael loves Lainie, and vice versa. Burton and Stratton’s scenes together – which take place only in Lainie and Michael’s imaginations – are heart-rending and deeply romatic.
The journalist Walker Harris seems Blessing’s most poorly drawn character. It was not clear to me what publication, or even what kind of publication, he worked for and what his motivation in seeking Lainie out initially was. I understood that he eventually fell in love with her and saw himself as her protector, but then why did he suddenly publish her story without her permission? The character did not seem to have a clear motivation for his actions – Ambition? Love? Sex? The desire to stick it to the government? What is this man about? Unlike the other three characters, Blessing does not give Walker any monologues in which to explain himself. Miller gave as appealing and centered a performance as was possible given the limitations of the character as written.
The look of this production is absolutely stark and barren. Ostaszewski’s set is windowless. There is a door, but it is camouflaged and opens and closes noiselessly and apparently under its own power. The walls and floors are painted a variety of colors that all add up to a muddy nothing (Remember how when you were a kid the more colors of paint you mixed together on a palate the less color you ended up with? It’s that color.) The room created by the walls is not square, and the angles give it an illusion of greater height and depth than it actually has. Furniture is brought in occasionally – the aforementioned chair and a matching end table - their Shaker craftsmanship, with its spare, functional simplicity suiting the unadorned theme of the play.
Arthur Oliver has given each character one signature costume, although Burton inexplicably changed her sneakers during the first act. Years pass during the course of the play, yet Lainie and Ellen and Walker stay imprisoned in their clothing just as Michael does in his.
The only problem I had with this entire production was Burton’s accent. Burton is British. Lainie is an American. I am fully aware that many U.S. citizens speak with foreign accents. And I am not a fan of people faking accents. A Brit doing an American accent on stage surrounded by genuine Americans would not have worked. But since this play focuses so specifically on how differences in nationality, ethnicity, and religious beliefs affect the world, I had a hard time accepting the character of Lainie speaking with a British accent with no mention of it or explanation for it. And of course there is no mention or explanation in the script because Blessing’s Lainie does not speak with a British accent, Burton does. It would be a violation of copyright laws to alter even one word of the script, so it was impossible for Stevens to insert lines offering a plausible explanation for Burton’s accent. Without any explanation I kept wondering why Lainie didn’t mention the British government and seek assistance for Michael’s case with them.
This is a beautiful production of a moving and an important play. Although Michael is murdered by his captors, I did not leave the theatre feeling anger towards any specific people, nation, or religious group. I left feeling profoundly sad, reminded again of the huge chasm of misunderstanding that exists between eastern and western cultures and religions.
Two Rooms runs August 2-13 at the Chester Theatre Company's Chester home, and then moves to the Consolati Performing Arts Center in Sheffield, MA, for performances August 16-20. The show runs two hours and ten minutes without an intermission. While there is no on-stage violence, Two Rooms deals bluntly with harrowing international and personal matters. I would not bring children under 16. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-354-7771.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2006