By: Tim Treanor
Two Rooms, produced by Theater Alliance, at H Street Theater
Two Rooms is one of a pair of mainstage productions which anchors Theater Alliance’s ambitious two-month Pangea Project. In Earth’s early days, all land was contained in a single mass. Scientists call this land mass “Pangea”. In Two Rooms, the American hostage Michael Wells (David Johnson) is kept in an empty Beirut cell; his devastated wife Lainie (Katherine Coons) transforms his home office into what she imagines is the cell’s double, exiling all the furniture to the basement; and both rooms are staged in the same space in the production. Things have not changed all that much, playwright Lee Blessing seems to be suggesting.
Blessing’s play was first produced in 1988, and its basic outline is instantly familiar to anyone who remembers the period. Michael is a professor at the American University in Beirut who, along with a friend whose resistance costs him a part of his hand, is suddenly abducted by Shiite terrorists. His wife Lainie, a naturalist who was teaching with him, is sent to purgatory, and America, to wait for some news about his fate. Ellen, a State Department employee of indeterminate rank (Kerri Rambow, faintly resembling a young Madeline Albright), periodically visits Lainie to restate the steadfast refusal of the United States to negotiate with the terrorists and to urge Lainie to maintain a low profile. Walker, a reporter (Jason Stiles), arrives at her doorstep to urge her to take her case to the world and later serves as a sort of press agent when she decides to do so.
Blessing takes a while to tuck into his story. The first Act contains an extended description of the birthing practices of the cuckoo bird – beautifully told, and nicely delivered by Coons, but of unclear metaphorical relevance. And Blessing seems to overvalue the impact which the manipulation of symbols can have. When Walker writes a story about Lainie’s desolation, Ellen is horrified that news of the bare room has reached the papers. Later, Walker insists that when Lainie hits the television circuit she take with her a particular photo of her husband and his friend. Nothing else will do. In the real world, however, the impact of these symbols would be marginal.
Once the play reaches the second Act, however, it comes into its own and delivers a terrific emotional wallop. Michael’s and Lainie’s yearning for each other, expressed throughout the play in imaginary conversations between them, becomes palpable once Michael’s blindfold and tether are removed. Ellen, who in the first Act comes off as a prototypical self-protective bureaucrat, blossoms into a fully-realized character with a great speech and slide-show which sets forth her dilemma, and the nation’s, in blunt and unavoidable terms. Rambow nails this speech perfectly, and at once transforms her character into a tough-minded, caring, conflicted but resolute human being. Of course America cannot negotiate with terrorists. If it bought one kidnap victim, there would be a hundred more, and no American would be safe.
Cast in such terms, the story becomes a Greek tragedy, where everyone does the right thing, and untold suffering results. “Two Rooms is not a story about war, it is a story about love,” director Shirley Serotsky says. “Love of people. Love of religion. Love of nation. Love of land. Love of ideology.” She has it right; in this play, people go to war for the things they love.
The acting is uniformly marvelous. Stiles, loud and urgent but never strident, provides a driving bass to this quartet of otherwise subtle presences. Rambow manages to project a powerful, layered intelligence into Ellen and to make this character immensely sympathetic, even though it is she who makes Lainie stare into reality’s hard glare. Coons gives great specificity to her character by inhabiting a precisely rendered Midwestern dialect whose muted and lowered tones serve her dolorous dialogue well.
Johnson, rail-thin and covered by dirt, bruises and matted hair, sells himself completely as a teacher who cannot resist using this horrific experience as an opportunity to learn. Animated by a gentle, almost saintly, soul, Johnson’s Michael gives himself over completely to his imagination. (Pressing his blindfolded face against a rough wall, he imagines the bas-relief of an unnamed country. “This is Mount Freedom,” he says. “This is Mount Hope. And here’s Mount Sense of Humor.”) His rendering of a beautiful lyrical passage, reminiscent of the Yevtushenko poem Human Beings, towards the play’s end was the emotional high point of the production.
Serotsky deserves credit for eliciting such layered and tender performances. However, she made some choices which appear not to serve the play optimally. In specific, she puts Michael, bound, blindfolded, and tethered to the wall, onstage from the moment the house opens. Thus, audience members chat about restaurants, graduate school and Washington real estate while this poor devil wanders around his cell. Later on, she has Lainie project slides of Beirut against the shelves and boxes that make up much of Nick Vaugn’s interesting set (their purpose is not made clear until the play’s end); the resulting cacophony of images is incomprehensible. If there is a metaphorical meaning to this device, it escapes me.
You should not allow these occasional missteps, however, to detract from what will be an intense, satisfying theatrical experience. Two Rooms advances the argument that Theater Alliance is the best small theater in Washington.
Two Rooms runs through May 28 at the H Street Playhouse, 1365 H Street NE. Thursdays through Sundays except May 19, 25 and 26. Thursday through Saturday, the show starts at eight p.m. Sundays begin at 2, except for the 28th, which begins at 8. There are additional shows on Monday, May 15, Wednesday, May 17, Tuesday, May 23, and Wednesday, May 24, all at 8. Tickets are $25, and can be ordered through www.theateralliance.com or by calling 800.494.8497.