Two Rooms
by Christopher Soden
EDGE Contributor
Monday Nov 5, 2007

Matt Gunther and Joslyn Justus in Rover Dramawerks production of Two Rooms.How do you dramatize pain? Grueling, spiritual, emotional pain? The pain that comes from knowing your spouse is being held hostage by terrorists, and that you are utterly helpless to remedy the situation? And how you do it without resorting to maudlin theatrical techniques, without merely exploiting tumultuous content and pushing the audience’s buttons? Whenever you are dealing with loaded material (intense subject matter) in the arts, the conventional wisdom is: "Less is more." There is much to recommend this when we think about the restrained and somewhat detached approach of The Laramie Project or even Medea, where the most disturbing events happen offstage.
How do you dramatize pain? Grueling, spiritual, emotional pain? The pain that comes from knowing your spouse is being held hostage by terrorists, and that you are utterly helpless to remedy the situation? And how you do it without resorting to maudlin theatrical techniques, without merely exploiting tumultuous content and pushing the audience’s buttons? Whenever you are dealing with loaded material (intense subject matter) in the arts, the conventional wisdom is: "Less is more." There is much to recommend this when we think about the restrained and somewhat detached approach of The Laramie Project or even Medea, where the most disturbing events happen offstage.

Lee Blessing engages this technique to good effect in his play Two Rooms, in which a university professor named Michael (Matt Gunther) is kidnapped, held hostage, and completely isolated from any sort of communication with the outside world. His wife Lainie (Joslyn Justus) attempts to connect with him in the midst of these catastrophic events; to do so she quits her job, empties his den of all furniture and places a mat in the center; then closes all the curtains and rarely leaves the room. By creating a correspondence in their dwellings she creates (or tries to) a metaphysical empathy between them. Not that her reasoning is explained. Her situation is so excruciating, we don’t question her doing whatever she can to navigate. We might wonder if Michael would want her to subject herself to this, if it seems slightly perverse, but somehow it feels right.

Both Lainie and Michael are trapped in a nightmarish predicament. It becomes clear pretty early that Michael’s value as a bargaining chip outweighs his value as an individual to his own government. Michael and Lainie are caught between warring cultures whose sole interest in Michael is to use him as leverage against the other. Michael sits in a cell, blindfolded, beaten, isolated from the rest of the world in nearly every conceivable way.

Lainie’s government contact throughout this ordeal is Ellen (Misty Baptiste) who parses out information like drops of water in the Sahara. Ellen seems genuine and good-hearted, if somewhat domineering. Gradually we infer her primary concern is to keep tabs (and a tight rein ) on Lainie lest she expose the government’s apparent lack of concern. And compassion. Ellen uses possible jeopardy to her husband as a means of tacit extortion against Lainie. After all, Lainie is out of her depth and more or less trusts Ellen because she must.

The fourth character in Two Rooms is Walker (Shane Strawbridge) a journalist who offers to bring Lainie’s struggle to public attention. The world-forum if you will. Walker is very patient and respectful. Though not quite as altruistic as he seems, he cares enough to give Lainie the unvarnished truth. They develop a friendship over time. Walker’s advocacy feels more genuine than Ellen’s, and though there is a horrible, drunken moment when his rage and frustration gets the better of him, his dealings with Lainie seem relatively untainted.

The task of writing Two Rooms must have seemed like building a house of cards during an earthquake. These are extreme circumstances and Blessing has explicated them with empathy, sobriety and clarity; using them as occasion to examine the nature of self, selfishness and sacrifice. The ultimately harsh lesson Lainie gets from Walker is survival by exploiting the exploiters. Embracing a kind of symbiosis. Lainie needs exposure and Walker needs a story that will sell papers. Shi’ites kidnap Michael to get their confederates released. Each of us is a world unto ourselves, colliding with others to fulfill our personal destinies. None of this is dealt with in simplistic terms. There is no pretense of easy answers. Not even the kidnappers are depicted as unmitigated villains, though Ellen (as an agent of the government) comes fairly close. You can understand her reasoning but sometimes it’s hard to stomach her duplicity.

At the center of all this is Lainie, lost, distraught, groping for some shred of sanity in the midst of overwhelming crisis. She begins to carry on conversations with Michael, as if they were both in the same room. Whether or not these are intended to show tenderness, desperation or a sort of empathic consortium is unclear. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. Michael begins to find new appreciation for the minutest sensations and cherishes memories he can return to in the depths of deprivation. Lainie visits the wildlife refuge and resumes her job as a schoolteacher, spending less time in cultivated exile. A Zen koan is a seeming contradiction used to make a spiritual point, and Two Rooms makes use of this concept. While it is clear that Lainie is trying to take the high road, it’s also clear she’s just trying to get through this crucible without going to pieces.

It would be difficult to single out just one individual for praise in Rover Dramawerks production of Two Rooms. Lee Blessing’s play walks a tightrope over a minefield and obviously, director Beth Hargrove’s challenge was to stage it to fullest effect. From the Spartan, somber set design (Bryan Stevenson) with its cool palette of soft whites and blues, to the uncomplicated costumes (Adam Hargrove) the tone of the show was understated and poignant. Ms. Hargrove’s acumen has much to do with the success of Two Rooms, that, and the quiet forcefulness of Justus, Gunther, Baptiste and Strawbridge, a testimonial to the understanding that you don’t need a lot of "sturm und drang" to touch an audience.