The lights go up. There’s a bony, bearded man lying in the center of the stage. He’s shaggy and dirty, his eyes covered by a blindfold. The stage lights beat down on his back to reveal the outline of his spine. He’s quivering. The audience is dead silent as he speaks. No one dares flinch because shhh…the terrorists might get you, too.
The University of North Texas' production of Lee Blessing’s 1988 drama Two Rooms is an exhausting, intense experience, bearable for the work of its young and gifted cast.
The play tells the story of pre-9/11 story of Lainie (Lindsey Hall) and Michael Wells (Eric Orman), married teachers who had been living in Beirut until Michael's kidnapping by Arab terrorists. Lainie has returned to the States, where she's stripped her apartment to resemble the bare environment she imagines for Michael. When the play begins, he's already been in captivity for a year, with little hope of release.
Unfolding in a series of lengthy monologues, alternating between Michael and Lainie, the play fills in the details of Michael's life before and after his kidnapping. Lainie, it turns out, has become bitter about the U.S. government's lack of action on the case, and she's a little too open with her anti-war views. A journalist named Walker (Edgar Estrada) wants to bring her story back to the headlines, but Lainie doesn't trust him. She turns instead to a starchy State Department official (Amanda Perkins) to vent her frustrations.
The UNT production‘s cast is young but effective. As Michael, Orman is a bit too low-energy in his monologue about the conditions of his life as a prisoner, but he gains momentum toward the end of the play. With his shaggy blond hair and angular physique, he brings a certain grace to his movement as he shows the crippling effects on the body of a year of beatings and confinement.
Lindsey Hall’s performance as Lainie has its powerful moments, too. Showing sincere expressions of heartache and pain, she may make some audience members forget she’s only just acting. She doesn't give as physical a performance as Orman, but the deep emotions are there.
As Ellen, the government official, Amanda Perkins scowls and stands in a stern posture, encouraging the audience to hate her staunch and callous attitude toward Lainie. She’s only doing her job, after all.
Edgar Estrada’s performance as Walker, the ever determined and almost always business-minded reporter, although a bit jittery at first, is the standout in this production. This actor speaks clearly and brings great physicality to a character who is selfish but not entirely evil. Some reporters do have feelings for the people they cover, he seems to be saying in his portrayal.
Director Chris Barr has cheated her actors in the staging of this piece, however, putting them at times in positions that make them hard to hear and that block sight lines from segments of the audience. Be wary of stting on each side of the stage.
The set design by Kaori Imai is minimalistic—just one chair, one empty window frame—keeping the focus almost entirely on the actors. The upstage panels reflecting the lighting designed by Candice Miears are pure artistic magic, though, producing shades of gray, blue, green and yellow on a backdrop made of newspaper clippings. Nice touch, shedding fresh light on an old message about the struggle of the human spirit to survive, no matter what.