Mandigo Place Productions
Drayton Arms Theatre
This play, which presents a hostage held in Syria and the interaction between his wife, a journalist and a State Department official, premièred in 1988, long before the Twin Towers and the escalation of Middle Eastern conflict. That worsening of the international situation makes this picture of personal and official reactions only more relevant.
Somewhere, perhaps Beirut where he has been a university professor, Michael Wells is held prisoner, hands chained and blindfolded. Back in the United States his wife Lainie clears out his room, repaints the walls white and, with a mattress the only furnishing, finds that there she can feel him with her.
In these two rooms, thousands of miles apart, they can talk to each other. But this is a play about three rooms, not two, for as State Department staffer Ellen van Oss, in charge of Wells’s case, perceptively remarks in her analysis of the situation, the situation of many in the world, looking across at the rich, “free” West, their lives are similarly restricted to one metaphorical room with chained hands and blindfold.
The play sets personal pain against state real politick and the double purpose of a journalist wanting to help but after a great news story. It is starkly staged. Director Maryclare O’Neill switches between Beirut and the US with characters walking on and off in a fast fade-down. She precedes the performance with a fractured video montage of images, texts and snatches of telephone conversations that suggest the difficulty of getting information, and for the first part of the play creates a mental detachment so that the audience appraises the situations rather than being caught up in emotion.
With his eyes hidden, Richard Atwill, as the hostage, cannot use his eyes to express feeling or make contact with the audience which emphasises this observational quality and it is not until he joins his wife, played with great restraint by Catherine Skinner in her internal conversations with him, sees him remove his blindfold that emotions are allowed to impact, set against the pragmatic processes of the State Department.
Joanna Bool plays Ellen van Oss from the State Department with cool control, friendly yet with the firm face of the government official telling only what is authorised, yet revealing just enough to show the real person. Thomas Vilonia as journalist Walker Harris effectively does the reverse, giving us a glimpse of the professional motivation that is present behind his humane support.
We now live in fear of much larger-scale atrocities than hostage taking, but the understanding Blessing shows of where people are positioned is still revealing.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton