A Tense, Electric Blackbird Sorts Through Child Abuse and Its Aftermath

Valentina Olarte and Greg Dean star in Blackbird
Valentina Olarte and Greg Dean star in Blackbird
Photo by Samuel Herrera

The set-up:
“Shock.” That's the first word spoken in David Harrower's deeply disturbing play about child abuse, Blackbird (2005). It won't be the last time we, or its injured characters, are shocked by what we learn in the next 90 minutes.

The execution:
In this electric production from Hune Company's The Living Room Series, the two protagonists circle each other, sparring and remembering the haunted past, wary and on defense, and then draw ever closer as they reveal more of themselves, stripping off the facade. They're out to harm, to seek justice, to forget, perhaps to forgive, but the damage to both of them is so intense they seem bound to repeat the buried awfulness of it all.

Ray (Greg Dean), middle-aged and paunchy, a drudge at a nameless, faceless distribution center, isn't happy to see Uma (Valentina Olarte), young and fidgety, walk into the building. He hustles her into the employee's break room, strewn with food containers and overflowing trash bins. She has found him. How long has she been looking for him? We don't know, but the sex happened 15 years ago. Ray was 40, Uma 12. The real shock.

What does she want now after so many years? The damage has been done, irreparable, atrocious, unforgivable. Ray has moved on. After serving time in prison, he's changed his name, moved to a new city, and has been in a seven-year relationship with a woman. Uma hasn't been so fortunate. Scarred and wounded beyond belief, she never moved away, becoming a pariah in her neighborhood, taunted by prying eyes and judged by former friends. Her initial abuse continued through the justice system, uncaring doctors, and plenty of psychiatrists. Still childish, she might not even have grown up. The pain – and the love – are ever present.

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But what's the truth in their respective lives? Harrower doesn't tell. Written in jagged syntax, elliptical by design, the play masterfully dances between remembered events and what each of them perceives in their individual memories. Both have been damaged. Harrower doesn't judge nor take sides. Each of them has excuses, rationalizations, and selective thoughts about what happened so many years ago. As Faulkner wrote in Requiem for a Nun, “The past is never dead, it's not even past.”

The effects of their brief, three-month “affair” has never left them. How could it? Ray may have been a monster to prey upon a child, but he had his reasons, slight and offensive as they might sound to her now. And Uma craved the attention that the older man so willingly supplied. He didn't abandon her at the seaside hotel after their only sexual encounter, he did come back to her, only to discover that Uma had panicked and ran away. Is any of this true? The couple is destined, fated, to re-live the past and recount the same lies and half-truths. Each has an agenda.

Yet they draw closer to each other in a bizarre mutual dependency, two selves forever in search of belonging together. Maybe, maybe not. Harrower throws in a final shocker that shatters all we think we know about these two. It's another disquieting question mark in a play that asks and challenges us to our core.

Dean has never been your average guy, someone who might fade into the wallpaper, not with that rangy voice, those wild eyes, those expressive hands. He's never bland. Thoroughly theatrical, he adds layers of something a little bit off to every role. (He won our Houston Theater Award last season as Best Actor for his tongue-flicking, outsider Quasimodo in Catastrophic's Hunchback Variations.) He keeps us guessing as to Ray's motives, augmenting Harrower's circuitous, shifting perspective. Yes, he's the perfect child molester, tinged with creepiness, but with a sympathetic facade that seems ready to crumble at the slightest jar. One moment we accept his protestations, then like quick-silver he turns everything inside out, and we don't like him at all. Desperate and then turned-on, Dean turns Ray into a fascinating cipher, neither good nor bad, only a man.

He is matched in every way by newcomer Olarte, a senior at University of Houston. With a velvety rasp of a voice, she embodies innocence, then, also like Dean, instantly transforms to vengeful harpy out for blood, or perhaps a kiss. She keeps us guessing in a tantalizing performance that veers from instability and fragility to steely control and knowing exactly what she wants and how to get it. Her Uma is a 12-year-old in a taunting 27-year-old body. It's a masterful performance: hard, soft, tempting, frightful.

In the intimate second-floor space (very intimate – the space seats about 20) curtained off out of a patio home on Stanford, set designer Jacob Ostdiek has managed to fit in one messy-looking staff room with an opaque window at the back. Previous productions have used shadowy workers crossing outside the room where Ray and Uma confront each other, which added an ominous foreboding. Hune Company foregoes the eavesdroppers, but the play doesn't suffer. The tone is confining, constricted, perfectly apt to cause discomfort because we're so close to the action that begs us, otherwise, to look away. We can't, of course, because we're in that room with them – literally feet away.

The verdict:
Under Matt Hune's noose-tightening direction, Blackbird takes wing in terribly disturbing ways. It is claustrophobic, deep, dark, and, somehow, amazingly free. We don't really know how to respond to Harrower and what he's saying. He's certainly not telling us. When produced so thoroughly, sometimes the most beastly nightmares make the most intriguing theater of all.

Blackbird continues through December 12. Hune Company, 1210 Stanford Street. For information, call 713-344-1291 or visit hunecompany.com. $20-$28. Seating is extremely limited, and Hune recommends ordering tickets online.  

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