The production of Two Rooms at the Powerhouse Theatre is a compelling, brilliantly written play by awarding-winning playwright Lee Blessing that succeeds despite its somewhat flawed execution.
The riveting story revolves around the kidnapping of Michael (Dominic Hoffman), an American professor teaching at the American University of Beirut. The action takes place between his wife, Lainie (Susannah Hall), Ellen (Greta Seacat), a steely State Department official who, for the past three years, has been delivering vague, contradictory information as to the progress of negotiations, and Walker (Caleb Moody), a journalist trying to convince Lainie to go public with her story.
The action takes place on an effective stark set designed by Aaron Jackson, with thick hemp curtains hanging eerily on both sides of the modest stage and a bath-size floor mat centered on a slightly elevated platform. This represents both the tiny cell in which handcuffed and blindfolded Michael has been imprisoned for the last three years, and his den at home from which Lainie has removed all the furniture. She believes that this bare room allows her to relate to the extreme conditions he is enduring and to feel his presence allowing for tender “fantasy” scenes between the two of them.
One of the most touching moments is when Michael delivers an exquisitely written monologue about when the kidnappers transferred him by car to another hiding place and his desperate struggle to hear any signs of life – the honking of a horn, the sound of a bird, anything that would confirm that he is still alive. His isolation is palpable and puts a real human face on his suffering and the terrible disruption of his and Lainie’s lives.
The technical problem with the production is the actors’ diction and projection, especially Susannah Hall, who tended to swallow the last word of her lines and was vocally uneven. Her screaming was not controlled so that the dialogue became obscured. However, the entire cast tended to let their voices drop at the end of their lines, with the exception of Caleb Moody, whose vocal projection stayed consistent. Some of the directorial choices by Jamie Wollrab were questionable, such as having Lainie direct a lot of her dialogue to the symbolic floor mat, compounding the vocal problem.
That said, Greta Seacat’s characterization of Ellen was the most interesting and multi-dimensional, in that she developed a strong inner life enabling her to find the humanity of her steely character that revealed itself in brief flashes.
Two Rooms runs 90 minutes without intermission, but flows smoothly, in part through the interesting device of using Tunisian musician MC Rai’s haunting Middle Eastern songs and instrumentals to underscore the scene changes. This play, written in the mid-80’s about a different crisis in the Middle East, is as relevant today as it was then, a tribute to the timelessness of the material.
Two Rooms runs through September 30. Call 310.396.3680 x7 for more information.