Josh Flanders is an actor, writer and comedian in Chicago. He is a writer for Choice The Musical and half of the comedy duo Flanders. Josh is a contributor for Chicago Reader and Chicagoland Musical Theatre, a member of the American Theater Critics Association, and a graduate of the Second City Conservatory. He is co-owner of Flanders Consulting.
Pictured: Jim Poole and Betsy Bowman. Photo by Nick McKenzie.
By Josh Flanders
Intense and unflinching, Blank Theatre Company’s “Blackbird,” now playing at City Lit Theatre, feels intentionally tight and uncomfortable reflecting the difficult storyline. This gripping play, set in a messy office breakroom, centers around two people, Ray and Una, whose past relationship has haunted both of them in very different ways. Ray sexually assaulted Una a decade and a half earlier, when she was 12 years old. Una thought, as a child, that she could give consent but now as an adult knows that she was unable to do so. After serving years in jail, Ray has rebuilt his life, including changing his name and getting a new job. Now Una has returned to confront Ray and wants answers about every aspect of his new life, trying to find meaning in the trauma she has been through.
Culpability, anger and still heated passions explode with Mamet-esque dialogue from each of them as they attempt to define and ultimately control the narrative of what happened years earlier. Nothing is cut and dry, and writer David Harrower steers clear of moralizing their past transgressions. Clearly, both of their lives have been forever changed. It is a disturbing and honest portrayal of an objectionable and illegal relationship. The more Ray tries to honestly explain and normalize his behavior the more cringe-inducing it is. His powers of manipulation are still in play. He spends much of the time explaining why he is not a pedophile, just a guy who once happened to fall for and have sex with a 12-year-old girl. It is difficult for the audience to have sympathy for this devil.
The central moral question Ray argues is “what is the price of one transgression?” And “what does forgiveness or punishment mean for such a crime?” Thankfully, none of these questions are answered, or really directly addressed, but rather we witness a poignant reunion of two broken souls still seeking connection and resolution.
Betsy Bowman is sensational as Una, bringing myriad powerful, authentic emotions to bear, reflecting years of dealing with the scars of her past. Many of her memories are painful, yet some are less so and still carry the hope she lost as a child. She gives a powerful monologue recounting the time they spent together and when things abruptly turned from sweet to sour, and then worse.
Jim Poole is engrossing as Ray, bringing great nervous energy as his past literally shows up at his new office, invading his new life. Watching him make excuses for his behavior, something he has clearly spent a lot of his incarcerated life thinking
“Blackbird” runs through March 31st. For more information visit blanktheatrecompany.org.