Is This a Room

Tina Satter
Half Straddle
Vineyard Theatre, New York

T L Thompson, Frank Boyd, Emily Davis and Becca Blackwell Credit: Carol Rosegg
Frank Boyd and Emily Davis Credit: Carol Rosegg
Frank Boyd, Emily Davis and T L Thompson Credit: Carol Rosegg

We are becoming increasingly familiar with the language of leaking and espionage, as Julian Assange and Edward Snowden proved themselves to be modern folk heroes. Therefore, everyone attending performances of this 70-minute verbatim drama, conceived and directed by Tina Satter, will realise that the periodic grinding noises and blackouts represent redactions from a compelling series of transcripts.

The opening scenes are harmless enough as, standing on a narrow traverse stage, a young woman in T-shirt and shorts is stopped outside her home in Augusta, Georgia by two men. The character portrayed by Emily Davis is a former Air Force officer with the unlikely name (and it is not a pseudonym) of Reality Winner. However, when the FBI comes to visit, trouble can only be just around the corner. Before it arrives, we get the domestic comedy of pet care, which lightens the mood.

In relatively genteel fashion, officers played by Frank Boyd and T L Thompson ask a series of questions that sound harmless enough but are clearly probing towards a preordained outcome. Viewers learn that this nervous young woman spent six years in the Air Force before joining a private company as an interpreter, specialising in Farsi and other languages of Iran.

Security levels at Pluribus International Corporation were equivalent to those in government agencies, meaning that even printing a document for use in the office was forbidden. One offence of this kind was quickly offered by the nervous potential spy as a possible explanation for the investigation but the officers had bigger fish to fry. It transpired that not only did Ms Winner copy a briefing document but she then smuggled it out of her employer’s offices and mailed it to a news organisation.

The evening ends in uncertainty since, by the end of the tape, the FBI officers did not know whether their target was going to be spending the night of the interrogation in prison, let alone any longer period.

Literature handed out at the performance fills in some of the gaps, explaining that from that day (3 June 2017) to this, Reality Winner has been in jail serving a record-breaking sentence under the Espionage Act for leaking a document that showed proof of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Is This a Room is a really terrifying presentation, showing that what appears to be one small attempt to publicise what many might believe to be unacceptable behaviour can lead to terrible consequences. Viewers could come away from the play with a number of different responses. Some might believe that anyone who leaks secrets should be locked up with the key thrown away. At the other end of the scale will be those who applaud whistleblowers believing that they keep society balanced and those in power honest. Many might fall somewhere between these two poles but, regardless, it would be very hard not to feel a great deal of sympathy for this unfortunate young woman.

With a spare soundscape and judicious use of lighting, Tina Satter has created a gripping production that maintains tension throughout and benefits from a particularly strong and emotionally powerful performance by Emily Davis.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher