If you’re looking for mindless escapism or a light, breezy evening of summertime theater, you will need to stay far away from Manbites Dog Theater’s harrowing, intense production of Blackbird, by the British playwright David Harrower. What this play offers is a frank, candid, confusing, and disturbing examination of child sexual abuse and how a couple deals with the past and present when they meet ten years hence. While the playwright is careful not to explicitly excuse or justify past behavior, he does present interesting attitudes and thought processes of both the victim and perpetrator. A great deal of theater, film, and literature deals with the attempt to show how the same event can have vastly different viewpoints, and Blackbird is such a play. It is worth printing the fifth stanza of Wallace Stevens’ poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” (which was included in the program) as a concise reflection on perception:

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

A very messy, generic office break room strewn with all manner of garbage is the opening scene as a young woman is hurriedly ushered in by a well-dressed employee. The early twentysomething Una (Alessandra Colaianni) had seen a photo in a trade magazine and immediately recognized one of the men as Ray (Jay O’Berski), the man she had an affair with more than a decade ago when she was twelve and he was nearing forty. Una has come to get answers and some perspective as an adult on what happened and how the affair has consumed her life and behaviors. Ray, after serving time in prison and now seemingly getting his life in order, is hesitant and quite hostile at first, wanting nothing to do with reliving past mistakes. He is eventually drawn into an examination of their forbidden history, and this stroll down “lover’s lane,” as sordid as it was/is, has some devastating consequences.

Colaianni, perfectly cast and looking the part of a child/woman, is a bundle of contradictions: assertive, confident, emotionally wounded, and scared. She had a bit of trouble sustaining the emotional power of a crucial twenty-minute soliloquy but ended on a high note. O’Berski internalized and then projected the deep confusion and guilt of someone who, while acknowledging his transgressions, still somehow asserts he is not like “them,” i.e. “real” child molesters. Adding to the mystery of this relationship and even whether Ray, now renamed Peter, has rehabilitated himself, is the question of Ray’s position in this nameless place of business. Is he really a “professional” man, or a janitor? Is he really in a healthy, long-term relationship or, as is often asserted, forever a captive of his urges.

I tend to evaluate most artistic events by their lasting resonance: how long they stay with you, changing thoughts on their message and impact, and even reversals of opinion days later. The initial viewing and consequent effect of Blackbird was such an event. As simply an artistic presentation, this was a superb evening of theater. This is one disturbing — some may even say depraved — love story, and you cannot escape the fact that it does indeed at least ask whether a relationship between a grown man and a twelve year old child can be something other than a sick, criminal act. Despite Una’s claims to the contrary, she eventually speaks lovingly of their past relationship which eventually leads to a creepy and somewhat graphic sex scene between the reunited “lovers.” At that moment you hear someone calling for Ray, and a young girl appears at the door – apparently his step-daughter as Ray tells her to “tell Mom he’ll be right there.” With few words spoken, you can sense that perhaps there is more to this relationship than stepfather and daughter. Is there? Is Ray a recidivist pedophile or are we unwilling to allow people to change? This was a powerful scene, and the actors were exuding pent-up emotions just through their manner and spirit.

Director Michael O’Foghludha and the entire Manbites Dog Theater staff have given us a compelling and frightening glimpse at what may ultimately be just another look at what people will do for love and acceptance, regardless of society’s prohibitions. The set, by Derrick Ivey, was very effective, including the parts that you could not see that realistically replicated office hallways. If the main purpose of theater is to arouse, awaken, and make you think in ways you are not quite used to – or don’t even want to – then Blackbird is the play for you.

Blackbird continues June 23-26. For details, see our calendar.