Few people know what it takes for a survivor of sexual assault to confront his or her abuser. That’s the searing encounter depicted by Michelle Williams and Jeff Daniels in Blackbird, David Harrower’s single-scene drama that opened at the Belasco Theatre last night. Under the nimble direction of Joe Mantello, the production enters a growing and essential cultural conversation about consent and sexual violence, premiering on Broadway at a time when the likes of Lady Gaga and Vice President Biden are encouraging survivors of such assault to speak out.
In that way among others, Blackbird presents a powerful story, one that is full of the sort of complicated questions that often remain unspoken to the point of being taboo: Was she mature enough, at 12, to know her own mind, if not her body? Could some part of what she shared with a then 40-year-old man be considered love? Does what he did make him a monster, and what sort of life is he entitled to lead afterward? Questions like these are usually met with black and white answers, but Harrower pushes deep into uncomfortable gray areas.
This is partly achieved through the slow revelation of what actually happened 15 years prior to the moment Una (Williams) shows up unannounced at Ray’s (Daniels) office-park job and corners him in the messy break room. It’s not quite a game of he-said, she-said, as their memories of events essentially coincide, different though their perspectives were at the time. The history that emerges sounds not too far off from the plot of Lolita: His desire for her took him by surprise; she was both adult-like and childish in returning his advances.
As many difficult questions as the play raises, it becomes increasingly clear that they’re being asked from a male perspective. It can’t help that Daniels, as the reformed everyman just trying to move on, is far more at home on stage than Williams. Even as Ray would much rather disappear or run away than face his mistakes, Daniels is in his element playing a flawed, middle-aged man at his moment of reckoning. He does so with impressive and believable sincerity, particularly considering he’s playing a kind of predator.
Williams’ Una is jittery, emotional, even bird-like (you might say), and she brings a raw intensity to the role that feels, at times, appropriately off-putting. But her characterization is also mannered in a way that generates distance where there might be more sympathy. As was the case with her Broadway debut last year, as Sally Bowles in Cabaret, Williams proves herself to be a daring actress, even while it feels difficult to connect with the character she creates. While Daniels disappears into his role, Williams’ performance feels fraught with effort.
And maybe, that’s part of the point. If it seems as though these two are operating on different planes, they are. They can never understand how the other experienced their sexual entanglement and the profound impact it’s had on their lives since. From the turn their conversation ultimately takes, though, it’s clear that Harrower’s grasp of male fantasy is firm, which is how all of this began in the first place.
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Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar (photos: brigitte lacombe)