In the ten years since I first saw a Denver production of Lee Blessing’s Two Rooms, the political shadows have deepened and the play’s meanings multiplied: Ripple Effect Theatre, a relatively new company, shows courage, insight and ambition in reviving this play.
The two rooms of the title are the bare space where Michael, a visiting professor, is held hostage by a militant jihadist group in Beirut, and Michael’s office at home, where wife Lainie waits for news and grieves his absence. During the 1980s — the play was written in 1988 — several Americans were captured by Islamic Dawn during the war in Lebanon. Michael and Lainie communicate across space and time, or imagine they do. He writes her letters in his mind, since he has neither pen nor paper; she conjures his warm, living presence in the room where he used to work.
Periodically, Lainie is visited by two people: Walker, a journalist anxious to get an interview from her; and Ellen, an official with the State Department, who is equally anxious to keep her silent. Walker argues that the best way to free Michael is to draw public attention to his ordeal, while Ellen wants the government left free do its job. Both have ulterior motives. Though he’s solicitous of Lainie and remarkably patient in his quest, Walker is also willing to exploit her suffering in the interest of a good story. Ellen is a more ambiguous character: Like many current pundits and politicians, she sees the entire world as engulfed in a clash of civilization between Islamic fundamentalism and the ideals of the West; she also believes that national interest may require the sacrifice of individual Americans like Michael.
In service to this belief, Ellen has a long speech about the young boys sent by Iran to clear minefields during that country’s war with Iraq. These children, she says, went to their deaths with plastic keys to paradise around their necks and swathed in blankets so that their blown-off limbs would be kept together for the families rejoicing in their martyrdom. This is the kind of evil we have to fight, she suggests. Though it was widely reported at the time that Iran was sending untrained and very young recruits to clear minefields, saving the country’s experienced fighters for other tasks, these details — children, plastic keys, blankets — are almost impossible to verify. It’s equally impossible to know if Ellen believes them or is spouting propaganda.
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Ironically, Michael is the most thoughtful and clear-sighted member of the quartet. Even as he agonizes over his own captivity, he laments the death and suffering he sees around him, tries to understand his captors and in his mind maps a world of hope and peace.
Blessing’s script evokes all kinds of potent contemporary issues. Watching Michael’s struggles, it’s impossible not to think of James Foley, whose hideous murder at the hands of Islamic militants flashed across the world on video last year. The New York Times reported on the ordeal suffered by Foley’s family, who learned that European hostages had been released because their governments negotiated with their captors and even offered ransoms. Ellen visits Lainie weekly, if only to keep her quiet, but Foley’s family felt left to its own dark fears and speculations. “For much of the hostages’ captivity, the administration appears to have treated the abductions as unfortunate but relatively routine cases of Americans falling into the hands of extremists,” the Times reported. “Europeans, by contrast, treated the kidnappings as national security crises.”
Ripple Effect deserves applause for bringing this fascinating piece of theater to life, and the production does communicate a profound, visceral and necessary sadness. But it also has flaws beyond the technical problem of presenting a play in a long, narrow Ballpark neighborhood room never intended as a theater, with bare-bones tech that places a heavy burden on the actors and director Brandon Palmer. Joe Von Bokern is cast against type as Walker — he looks way too young for the part — but he does give a convincing and appealing performance. Haley Johnson in the key role of Lainie has some very moving moments, along with others that slightly miss the mark. Sam Gilstrap is a heartfelt though sometimes too-florid Michael, and Paige Lynn Parson reveals the human side of smooth-talking Ellen.
Two Rooms, presented by Ripple Effect Theatre Company through April 11 (performances Friday and Saturday), The Bakery, 2132 Market Street. For ticket information, call 720-441-2933 or go to rippleeffecttheatre.com.