Oil-Can Productions

at Cafe Voltaire

The strengths and weaknesses of this company’s first professional production reflect those of Lee Blessing’s play. A very moving story, about a hostage and his wife who remain spiritually connected though physically separated, is weakened by heavy-handed portraits of the ineffectual government agent and ambitious journalist who claim to be working for his release.

Blessing stirs us with quiet monologues that make up the couple’s individual fantasies. Somewhere in Beirut, blindfolded and handcuffed, the hostage clings to his sanity by “writing” mental letters to his wife Lainie. “Talking” to her, Michael travels in his mind–backward to their first meeting and forward to the son they haven’t had. In Michael’s office at home (from which his wife has removed all his furniture and belongings, as if to re-create his prison), Lainie spends most of her time talking to him, as much to keep him alive in her thoughts as to will him to live until he can be freed. Their devotion to each other’s memory, Lainie explains, creates “a fortress, not a prison.”

Ellen, who is assigned Michael’s case by the State Department, and Walker, a fast-talking reporter who wants Lainie’s exclusive story, are mouthpieces for opposing views on how to deal with terrorism. Sounding like a recording, Ellen blandly advises Lainie to wait and see: “the government is doing all it can.” But Walker insists that Lainie speak out on behalf of all hostage families against the United States’s “Middle East policy,” a term never defined.

Blessing eventually fleshes out these two flat characters somewhat: Ellen briefly reveals compassion beneath her steely surface; and we see that Walker’s concern for Lainie is driven by a cutthroat ambition to get her story. “I’m just doing my job,” he says. The play’s final insight is that people are kidnapped and killed although everyone–Ellen, Walker, even the terrorists–is “doing his best.”

Directors Justin Greenberg and Jay Iacobucci create an easy flow between Michael’s prison and his home. Michael and Lainie first appear silhouetted behind screens to establish their separation, and then share a nearly bare stage that represents both their rooms.

As Michael, David Bryson admirably makes the hostage’s limitless thoughts as real as his harsh physical confinement. Jennifer Wojnaroski gives Lainie an appropriately split personality: tender and warm when addressing Michael in her fantasies, and virulent in her anger when dealing with the cruel reality of his absence. As Walker and Ellen, Ben Currier and Sheila Willis don’t overcome the failings of Blessing’s characters–they are initially flat but rise to the occasion as their roles gradually gain some depth.

Through much of Two Rooms Blessing uses Ellen and Walker to lambaste the U.S. government. Fortunately, the play is more than finger pointing; it focuses on victims of an impossibly painful reality who create alternate realities in which they can survive.