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Hard Cell? 

Theater Review: Two Rooms

"War isn't a tear in the fabric of things," an American hostage in Lebanon utters from behind his blindfold. "It is the fabric of things." The comment marks one of many moments that lend a chilling timeliness to Lee Blessing's 1988 play Two Rooms, recently staged at Burlington's FlynnSpace by Montpelier-based Center Stage.

While the play seems to allude to a specific, if fictional, kidnapping, the production succeeded in presenting the story as "business as usual" in anarchic regions of the Middle East, where foreign hostages are used as bargaining chips. Two Rooms is an equally astute commentary on the role terrorist abductions play -- and sometimes don't play -- in U.S. diplomatic maneuvering. The familiarity of this real-life premise makes it all the more compelling. Though the cast sometimes strained under the weight of such heavy messages, the production as a whole took a daring step into dramatically dangerous terrain.

Bob Nuner played Michael Wells, a U.S. national and university professor who is working in Beirut when he's abducted by unidentified agents, for undisclosed reasons. One of the two rooms in the play's title refers to the cell in which he's kept manacled and usually blindfolded. The second room is in the home of Michael's wife, Lainie, back in suburban Washington, D.C. Played by Morgan Irons, Lainie maintains the space as she imagines her husband's cell to look. In this production, one room on stage represented both, with Michael and Lainie alternately occupying the space to carry on an imaginary dialogue with each other.

Two other characters periodically join Lainie: reporter Walker Harris (Adam Soule) and Ellen Van Oss, a state department official played by Betsy Jessie. Walker and Ellen have conflicting interests in the effort to secure Michael's release. Ellen accuses Walker of just being out to land a sensational story and Walker accuses Ellen of being mainly interested in stringing Lainie along. The government doesn't care as much about her husband's fate as she does.

In this production, these essentially cynical, combative stances contrasted, ironically, with Michael's own more resigned bearing. Nuner portrayed the hostage as a hapless victim who, in the later period of his captivity, has come to look with a twinge of amusement upon his daily routine and the harsh global realities that make his situation at once so awful and so commonplace. This gallows humor allowed Nuner's character to make poignant observations about the mad world around him.

Michael's imagined conversations should have been the most difficult parts of the play to pull off. After all, he's essentially a barefoot, blindfolded man talking to himself in a tiny room. But Nuner's relaxed characterization played against expectations in a convincing way. In the end, he seemed to find more chemistry with himself than the other characters in the play found with each other.

The complex subject matter at the heart of Two Rooms also makes for some awkward scripting, which even Andrew Doe's skillful direction cannot energize. His players move fluidly about the stage, stinging and consoling each other, but the writing itself often brings the action to a halt. It fell to Jessie, for example, to somehow integrate into an ordinary exchange between the state department official and the hostage's wife a broad introduction to foreign diplomacy and terrorist activity. Given that Michael has been in captivity for roughly a year, it's hard to believe Lainie requires a crash course in Terrorism.

In another scene, Walker similarly subjects Lainie to a string of obvious observations about the mass media. One wonders how Lainie -- like her husband, a teacher -- could be so naïve.

Neither Jessie, Soule nor Irons succeeded in making these diatribes appear rooted in an organic impulse; rather, they seemed to be indulging the playwright's need to make these points explicit. Their characters seemed to be talking at each other through many heated exchanges.

Irons played the most pivotal role in Two Rooms. Through Lainie, we experience her fury over what the unnamed terrorists have done to her husband, frustration at the state department's failure to act, and ambivalence about the trustworthiness of the media. As local audiences witnessed in a recent Center Stage production of W.I.T. -- in which she played an aloof academician stricken with cancer -- Irons is skillful at expressing simmering inner turmoil. In Two Rooms, she laid her emotions bare -- but lost something in the process. Her anger had limited range. Unlike Nuner's Michael, whose curious state of mind drifted from philosophical to nostalgic to contented as a result of years of confinement, Irons' Lainie was still angry -- shouting, stomping, fist-clenchingly angry.

While the play sometimes teetered on static, Leslie Day's simple yet effective scenic design created a consistently intriguing theatrical space. A single mattress in the center of the stage and a small wicker table were the only pieces of furniture. A projection of pinkish-red splashes on the mattress and a back wall suggested blood.

Other projections on the back wall advanced the narrative in more overt ways. Lainie showed Walker slides the fictional Michael had taken in Beirut before his capture. Ellen later showed an unidentified audience slides from real life of individuals kidnapped over the past few decades. Ellen's photographs were black and white, save the last one: of slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.

The fact that this image is so instantly recognizable underscores the tragic reality behind the fiction of Two Rooms. It raises questions not only about Michael's fate, but also a more disconcerting thought about hostage taking: Who will be next?

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About The Author

Erik Esckilsen

Erik Esckilsen

Erik Esckilsen is a contributing writer for Seven Days and Kids Vermont. He is also a professor of rhetoric and digital storytelling at Champlain College.


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