St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s “Blackbird” raw and unforgettable

The raw and risky “Blackbird” draws us into a danger zone – sex with a minor — and the aftermath of broken wings struggling to fly again.

Playwright David Harrower opted not for moral judgments, and instead is brutal about our truth and our memories. How would two people recall their illicit affair 15 years earlier, when he was 40 and she was 12, now that scandal and scorn have defined their lives since then?

With discipline and directness, Annamaria Pileggi has shrewdly staged the disconcerting and devastating one-act as a power play.

While the gray area is wide, what is certain is the scalding, uncompromising performances by John Pierson and Elizabeth Birkenmeier in this unforgettable work by St. Louis Actors’ Studio.

“Blackbird” shows how both characters’ lives have been shattered by their three-month relationship. The dialogue is frank, and often uncomfortable. But Pierson and Birkenmeier are absolutely riveting – no one moves or makes a sound in the audience during its 80-minutes (no intermission).

Ray, 56, has rebuilt his life after spending years in prison. He has a new name, new city and buried secrets. Una, 27, sees his photo in a magazine and tracks him down at the plant where he works. They have not seen each other since that fateful day.

He is shocked and she’s upset, and the intimacy intensifies as the two fearless performers dare to plumb emotional, psychological and physical depths few can get to convincingly.

Imagine the ricocheting mood swings as two characters recall explicit details. The tension is thick, guilt simmers, blame builds, desire surfaces and rage erupts in a nondescript but very messy staff room.

During their unnerving confrontation, they reconstruct the night that changed everything. She wants answers. He tries to explain. Una reveals her pain, and Ray, now Peter, conveys his shame. The wounds re-open, but did they ever heal?

In one brilliantly staged scene, Una details what happened after she lost her virginity, and Ray left the room. She is standing on the right side, methodically stating the facts and injecting her feelings. On the left side, sitting down, is Ray – the shifting emotions that Pierson telegraphs on his face and in his body language, without saying a word, is remarkable. This is gut-wrenching work from both.

Clearly, the searing story is not so easy to define: Was it love, forbidden temptation or sinister? It was consensual, but wrong – and illegal. Can they arrive at the truth, resolve the past and move forward?

After sympathizing with both characters, because the pair humanize their roles, we are in for a shock. Just when we think we know, we really don’t. Are the characters telling the truth? They are believable saying what they think is the truth.

Resident set and lighting designer Patrick Huber’s dull-gray lunch room and harsh lighting adds to the ordinary setting for an extraordinary confrontation. Sienna Hahn briefly appears in a jarring role called “Girl.”

This challenging and complicated play premiered at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2005 and in New York at the Manhattan Theatre Club in 2007. The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis staged it in their Studio Theatre in 2009, but no regional group has tackled it until now. A Tony-nominated 2016 Broadway revival starred Jeff Daniels and Michelle Williams, and brought the conversation back into the light.

Like the play “Doubt,” “Blackbird” raises more questions than it answers. Bravo to STLAS for daring to get this right. Tough stuff, yes, but meticulously crafted, and one that will haunt for a long time.

Of note: St. Louis Actors’ Studio has printed a “Trigger Warning” in the program, stating that Blackbird contains content that explicitly describes a sexual encounter between a minor and an adult. It may be unsuitable or triggering for some audience members. Discretion is advised.

“Blackbird” runs through Feb. 25, and performances are at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and at 3 p.m. Sunday, at the Gaslight Theatre, 358 N. Boyle Ave., St. Louis, 63108. Tickets available through Ticketmaster or at the box office one hour prior to performance.



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