Blackbird Credit: Liz Lauren

The first thing you hear in Victory Gardens Theater’s Blackbird is the sound of an acoustic guitar—a gentle prelude to the fireworks to come. There’s no vocal, but the song—Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird,” from the Beatles’ 1968 White Album—is instantly recognizable, and its words float in your head: “Blackbird singing in the dead of night / Take these broken wings and learn to fly . . . into the light of the dark black night.”

Una and Ray, the principal characters in this unremittingly intense 80-minute one-act by Scottish playwright David Harrower, are birds with broken wings—psychologically crippled by an episode that left both their lives in tatters. She’s 27, he’s 56, and they’ve had a brief affair—about 15 years earlier, when he was 40 and she was 12. They haven’t seen each other since Ray was sent to prison for statutory rape (“blackbird” is British slang for “jailbird”). Una has endured a lifetime of being “talked about, pointed at, stared at,” while Ray has done his time, changed his name, moved to a new city, and rebuilt his life. Now called Peter, he’s the manager of a medical-supplies manufacturing firm. Una, who’s found him after stumbling across his photo in a trade magazine in her doctor’s office, has him cornered in the littered lunchroom of his workplace. But why? To accuse him? Humiliate him? Attack him? Hurt him? Kill him? Or to rekindle the relationship?

Blackbird debuted in 2005 at the Edinburgh International Festival before moving to London’s West End and winning the Laurence Olivier Award for best new play. Now receiving its Chicago premiere at Victory Gardens, with William L. Petersen as Ray and Mattie Hawkinson as Una, it’s the work of a very skillful writer. Like David Mamet and Harold Pinter, Harrower knows how to distill the fractured syntax, half-completed sentences, stuttering repetitions, and pregnant pauses of conversation into a stark, stylized, nerve-jangling poetry. He knows how to heighten tension with dramatically well-timed interruptions—a phone that rings at an awkward moment, an unwanted knock on the door—and startling outbursts of violent action. And he knows how to leave questions unresolved. Like Oleanna, Mamet’s tale of a middle-aged college teacher’s disastrous encounter with a female student, or Doubt, John Patrick Shanley’s portrait of a nun who suspects a priest of child molestation, Blackbird allows—even forces—audience members to impose their own interpretations on the events they’ve seen.

As Una and Ray retrace the events that led to their “three-month stupid mistake,” Harrower questions whether Una is more traumatized by the affair or by its aftermath—her parents’ fury, the intrusive medical exams, the guilt-inducing sessions with a soft-spoken psychiatrist who asked her why she hurt people who loved her, the trial, the media, the gossip. Exploring the blurry line between passion and perversion, love and abuse, Blackbird suggests that intimate relationships between adults and minors are taboo not because they’re abnormal but because they’re all too natural. Ray insists he’s not one of “those sick bastards” who gets off on underage girls; his desire for Una arose from an inappropriate but sincere affection. And Una was no Nabokovian nymphet, but an average pubescent girl drawn to a mature man who, unlike most other adults, didn’t treat her like a kid.

This compelling play demands complete commitment and honesty from its actors while testing their memory and concentration to the limit. In Dennis Zacek’s thoughtful, beautifully paced staging, every moment counts, as each answer raises new questions and each flash of insight raises the drama’s emotional stakes, building to a shocking final twist. Petersen’s haunting Ray—a man torn simultaneously by guilt and a lingering, aching passion—perfectly balances Hawkinson’s blistering, surgically precise Una, whose life is a constant, quietly desperate struggle with panic, depression, anger, and longing. Watching this duo warily face off, then relax to the point where they can share water from the same plastic bottle, is like watching two hostile animals as approach the same water hole. Lit by Jesse Klug, Dean Taucher’s lunchroom set comes complete with folding metal chairs, card tables, headache-inducing fluorescent lights, and garbage cans filled to overflowing with junk-food wrappers and soft-drink cans—a perfect metaphor for the emotional mess Ray has spent a lifetime trying to dispose of.

Blackbird dissects pedophilia but also transcends that subject, finding universality in extreme circumstances. Anyone who’s ever tried to revisit a failed relationship—a broken love affair, a marriage that ended in bitter divorce, a childhood with abusive parents—will understand the challenge Una and Ray face as they sort through the secrets and self-deceptions, trying to comprehend the past so they can move forward into the light of the dark black night.