The story is a tangled web of emotional, political and media mayhem. Scott Wieland, Kate Ewings.
The Madison Theatre Guild presentation of Two Rooms, now playing at the Bartell Theatre, revolves around a flimsy striped mattress in the middle of a bare black stage. The mattress represents, alternately, a home and a prison cell, and it becomes a kind of psychic refuge where a husband and wife, separated by circumstance, meet to express their hopes and fears to each other. It's a powerful symbol in a minimalist production that leaves plenty of room for the actors to tell a harrowing tale with skill and conviction.
Playwright Lee Blessing (best known for his Cold War masterpiece A Walk in the Woods) sets the play during the chaotic events of Reagan-era Beirut, a time when the kidnapping of Westerners (and Americans in particular) was an almost daily occurrence. Sad to say, Blessing's incisive observations about terrorism, the perverse nature of Middle East politics and the West's response to them are as pertinent today as they were 25 years ago.
Director David Woldseth brings out the uncomfortable parallels with our current foreign policy without hammering the point. He directs his four-person cast with intelligence and does a good job of building dramatic tension. The story, structured as a series of brief scenes, is a tangled web of emotional, political and media mayhem.
Lainie Wells' photographer husband Michael is in the grasp of a group of Syrian terrorists. He is routinely beaten by his captors (offstage, thankfully) and constantly moved from one location to another in a bid to frustrate any attempts to free him. Lainie's efforts to engage domestic and foreign diplomats are met with platitudes and condescension. At one point she notes that at least the Syrian government acknowledges her pain, whereas in Washington she is the pain. It's a bitter realization for Lainie that her own government sees more political advantage in not rescuing her husband than in obtaining his release.
That government is personified by an opaque State Department drone named Ellen (Marja Barger), who is all glib rationality and vacuous posturing. Barger manages, however, to reveal a latent humanity beneath the bureaucratic faade. Her nemesis is the relentless reporter Walker (an energetic ChrisTopher Younggren), whose ambitious duplicity is at odds with his growing concern for Lainie and Michael's well-being. As Michael, however, Scott Wieland is an unconvincing prisoner. Only rarely does he rise to the emotional challenge of the script, settling instead for easy choices with his character.
The burden of the play ultimately falls on the slender shoulders of Kate Ewings as the desperate Lainie. Ewings has a hollowed-out appearance, her eyes haunted by the dread of what might befall her husband, and she has several fine moments. A long, metaphorical monologue about how the cuckoo occupies other birds' nests in order to propagate its species is particularly compelling. Ewings often undercuts herself by falling into the trap of playing the emotion instead of the person, but overall it is a solid performance.
This is a provocative and affecting play, dark and cerebral. It is also, at its core, a deeply moving love story. Unfortunately the run is only for six performances. Such a worthwhile production deserves more opportunities to be seen.