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Writing for Us
A CurtainUp Berkshires Review
By Shirley Safran
A young American University teacher, Michael Wells, has been snatched off the streets, bound and blindfolded, and thrown into a windowless room to await his fate. His distraught wife Lainie, a natural science professor, who, though thousands of miles a way, decides to share her husband’s imprisonment by duplicating the stark conditions of his incarceration. Only by shutting herself off from the world, and through a series of imaginary conversations with Michael, can she truly "feel" his presence and hope for his eventual release. But the outside world inevitably intrudes in the presence of a brusque, cool-headed State Department representative, Ellen Van Oss, and an earnest, ambitious journalist, Walker Harris, both of whom succeed in drawing Lainie out of her isolation for their own seemingly altruistic purposes. Lainie, in her desperation to have Michael freed by any means necessary, cooperates with them after a fashion. These "unexpected alliances" inevitably result in all of them having to face morally ambiguous circumstances.
Walker believes and convinces Lainie that by going public with her story she can overcome the powerlessness of her position and somehow help free Michael. Walker’s motives appear wholly disinterested, but he is seduced by his own ambition and political agenda which involves exposing the government’s hypocrisy and duplicity in dealing with the hostage crisis. The Pulitzer prize that he disdained earlier, might now just be within reach.
The government’s case, where policy and politics are often blurred, is articulated by Ellen, who is a conduit for information that Lainie desperately seeks. In effect, Ellen becomes Lainie’s handler, making it clear at one point that the State Department is not above manipulating and controlling Lainie. Yet, Ellen’s arguments are persuasive as she illustrates by showing a series of graphic slides of the enemy in action, how necessary it is to defeat them at all costs, including making difficult individual sacrifices. Both Walker and Ellen offer Lainie hope, which she needs to survive the agony of waiting. The play becomes a powerful meditation on the painful complicity between the political and the personal in a world gone mad.
Ellen says it all: "We in the State Department understand that. It’s our job to be ready to sacrifice the few for the many when necessary, and we do. It’s our job to look down the road, to ascertain what is and isn’t likely to happen, and form our judgments accordingly."
It is to the playwright’s credit that he has not resorted to simplistic, melodramatic posturing, but rather, has created characters that are multifaceted, complex, and believable. There are no villains (except the terrorists, of course) or saints, just deeply conflicted human beings who somehow manage, in Ellen’s and Walker’s cases, to break through their expressed objectivity to a place of understanding and compassion. What we, the audience, are left with is a distressing sense of deja vu. Although this play takes place some twenty years ago (the script places the action as "the recent past, the present"), history keeps repeating itself with ever more deadly consequences.
The production at the Chester Theater Company is beautifully and intelligently directed by Byam Stevens and sensitively acted by a talented cast. The set, a drab box of a room which serves as Michael’s prison, and Lainie’s approximation of it, is perfect as is the atmospheric lighting which becomes a dramatic presence in itself.
Two Rooms is well worth a visit.