In Stray Cat Theater’s Blackbird, David Vining Inspires Sympathy

David Vining is many things: theater director, dialect coach, university professor. In Stray Cat Theater's new production of Blackbird, Vining reminds us that he's also a fine actor. His rather estimable job in this one-act, written by David Harrower and directed by Stray Cat founder Ron May, is to create sympathy for a 60-ish man who, some years earlier, had an affair with a minor.

Vining succeeds rather more than this production does. Blackbird is essentially a 90-minute confrontation between a man named Ray and a young woman named Una with whom he had sex when she was 12 years old. She has tracked him down and has turned up, as the play commences, at his workplace. The pair hole up in a messy break room, where they relive the drama of their previous meeting and the unhappiness it caused. Harrower has fashioned a long, curvy conversation that begins as an indictment and wends its way through every human emotion, winding up finally as a peculiar (and rather stunning) reminiscence between two injured people.

If this production falls short, it does so early on. When we first meet Ray (Vining) and Una (Nina Miller), they're speaking to one another not as two startled, distraught people, but as characters in a David Mamet play, by which I mean they're talking over one another in bits of phrases that collide and intersect and titillate — an affectation found in every Mamet script ever produced and one that, therefore, calls to mind nothing other than the famed playwright's work. This had to have been a deliberate choice on May's part; he knows his theater references and is no slouch when it comes to setting a scene. Grafting an homage to another playwright onto Harrower's piece serves only to muddle a truly worthwhile story.

Blackbird eventually recovers, thanks to Vining's sharp performance. In his presentation of a sad sack Everyman, Vining does the unthinkable: He allows us to sympathize with — but never feel sorry for — a fellow who made a single terrible mistake. It's a difficult distinction to bring to the stage, yet Vining — once he stops aping a Mamet puppet — does so with subtle turns of phrase and body language as he swings between cowering passivity and towering rage.

Unfortunately, Miller's performance is less rangy, so it suffers alongside Vining's more clever one. In scenes where she rails at her former molester, Miller makes the most of sometimes vulgar dialogue. But in scenes where she describes the tragedy her young life has become, her delivery remains still in strength rather than sorrow. I knew that Una's life had been filled with sadness, because Harrower wrote her this way. Miller appears, in her performance, to believe otherwise.

David J. Castellano's set design provides a superb backdrop for all this theatrical turmoil. His hyper-realistic, cluttered break room looks like what I imagine every one of these dire places must, and not just because Castellano has included a full-size snack machine on stage.

It's in this dire setting that we eventually realize something awful about the unfortunate pair we've come here to meet. While they've been reliving a tragedy, they've also been chatting about a long ago love affair that should never have taken place.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela