- The Washington Times - Friday, May 5, 2006

The ordeal of living in captivity is charted from the view of a hostage and his distraught wife in Lee Blessing’s bleakly touching play “Two Rooms.” The production, staged by Theater Alliance as part of its international Pangea Project, puts you through an emotional wringer, but the sadness is leavened by extraordinary performances and incisive direction by Shirley Serotsky.

Mr. Blessing wrote the play in 1988, when the taking of Western hostages by Shi’ite and other factions was a relatively new and alarming tactic. Some 18 years later, the feelings of helplessness and terror are as visceral as ever. And, given our involvement in Iraq and surrounding countries, the play’s blunt treatment of America’s precariously shifting alliances and diplomatic ties in the Middle East is a frightful reminder that not much has stabilized in nearly two decades.

Although “Two Rooms” lashes into both religious extremists and hard-nosed State Department employees parroting the party line, the play is essentially a love story. But it is an unconventional one, as your first glimpse of the hero is of a man in a filthy T-shirt and tattered pants, his body and face covered in bruises and dirt, his wrists in handcuffs and one ankle tied to a rope. This is Michael (David Johnson), a teacher captured in Beirut and held hostage for three years.

His wife, Lainie (Kathleen Coons), keeps the flame alive back home in America, battling bureaucratic apathy and doublespeak in her attempts to free him. As a way of capturing Michael’s presence, Lainie has stripped his home office as clean as a cell, and the days and hours drip away as she holds lively imaginary conversations with her husband. Nick Vaughn’s evocative set melds the dust and clay of Michael’s Lebanese prison with the symbolic barrenness of Lainie’s space.

On the other side of the world, Michael composes reams of pretend letters to Lainie, and his often mordantly funny observations and memories are a testimony to a life well lived in the mind. Mr. Johnson spends much of the play tethered and with his face obscured by a blindfold and a heavy beard, but he eloquently and unreservedly expresses the persistence of Michael’s spirit through his hands and voice.

They are both in captivity — Michael physically shackled and tormented by his captors, Lainie suspended in a pitiless state of limbo while she awaits news, good or bad. Lainie seems to have given up the business of living, and part of the miracle of Miss Coons’ portrayal is how she conveys that stasis in the careless way she moves her body, the eerie stillness and emptiness in her voice. She briefly bursts into life during her fantasy encounters with her husband, her face blooming like a flower and her words suffused with warmth as she traces the contours of his face in the air. This is a career-making performance, as Miss Coons’ Lainie comes off as both heartbreakingly vulnerable and indifferent as nature.

The only traces of activity in her life are visits by Ellen (a crisply professional Kerri Rainbow), a duty-bound State Department flunky, and Walker (Jason Stiles, a whirlwind of zealous energy), a newspaper reporter who sees Lainie’s situation as a way to strong-arm the government and the terrorists into action.

After Walker urges Lainie to go public with her story, the consequences are unpredictable and chilling. How you long for a happy ending for “Two Rooms,” but it is not to be. Sometimes, Mr. Blessing reminds us, hope is not enough.

***

WHAT: “Two Rooms” by Lee Blessing

WHERE: Theater Alliance, 1365 H St. NE

WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Through May 28.

TICKETS: $25

PHONE: 800/494-8497

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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