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A CurtainUp Berkshires Review

Two Rooms
By Shirley Safran

The most important thing is to maintain cautious optimism. Advised hope, I call it. We’re hopeful, but we’re advised. We’re not unintelligent. We recognize the reality of the situation, then we inject hope. Into that reality. Because without hope there can be no foreign policy. . --- Ellen Van Oss, Act One
Cranwell Resort

Two Rooms cast
(left to right) Matthew Floyd Miller & Paula Burton in Two Rooms.
(Photo: Rick Teller)
A hostage in blindfold, a desperate wife, a pragmatic State Department official, an ambitious journalist, the Middle-East exploding with political and religious factions outdoing one another in acts of cruelty and violence. 2006? Almost, but not quite. Rather, we are revisiting Beirut in Lee Blessing’s 1988 play, written at the height of the mid-80’s hostage crisis.

A young American University teacher, Michael Wells, has been snatched off the streets, bound and blindfolded, and thrown into a windowless room to await his fate. His distraught wife Lainie, a natural science professor, who, though thousands of miles a way, decides to share her husband’s imprisonment by duplicating the stark conditions of his incarceration. Only by shutting herself off from the world, and through a series of imaginary conversations with Michael, can she truly "feel" his presence and hope for his eventual release. But the outside world inevitably intrudes in the presence of a brusque, cool-headed State Department representative, Ellen Van Oss, and an earnest, ambitious journalist, Walker Harris, both of whom succeed in drawing Lainie out of her isolation for their own seemingly altruistic purposes. Lainie, in her desperation to have Michael freed by any means necessary, cooperates with them after a fashion. These "unexpected alliances" inevitably result in all of them having to face morally ambiguous circumstances.

Walker believes and convinces Lainie that by going public with her story she can overcome the powerlessness of her position and somehow help free Michael. Walker’s motives appear wholly disinterested, but he is seduced by his own ambition and political agenda which involves exposing the government’s hypocrisy and duplicity in dealing with the hostage crisis. The Pulitzer prize that he disdained earlier, might now just be within reach.

The government’s case, where policy and politics are often blurred, is articulated by Ellen, who is a conduit for information that Lainie desperately seeks. In effect, Ellen becomes Lainie’s handler, making it clear at one point that the State Department is not above manipulating and controlling Lainie. Yet, Ellen’s arguments are persuasive as she illustrates by showing a series of graphic slides of the enemy in action, how necessary it is to defeat them at all costs, including making difficult individual sacrifices. Both Walker and Ellen offer Lainie hope, which she needs to survive the agony of waiting. The play becomes a powerful meditation on the painful complicity between the political and the personal in a world gone mad.

Ellen says it all: "We in the State Department understand that. It’s our job to be ready to sacrifice the few for the many when necessary, and we do. It’s our job to look down the road, to ascertain what is and isn’t likely to happen, and form our judgments accordingly."

It is to the playwright’s credit that he has not resorted to simplistic, melodramatic posturing, but rather, has created characters that are multifaceted, complex, and believable. There are no villains (except the terrorists, of course) or saints, just deeply conflicted human beings who somehow manage, in Ellen’s and Walker’s cases, to break through their expressed objectivity to a place of understanding and compassion. What we, the audience, are left with is a distressing sense of deja vu. Although this play takes place some twenty years ago (the script places the action as "the recent past, the present"), history keeps repeating itself with ever more deadly consequences.

The production at the Chester Theater Company is beautifully and intelligently directed by Byam Stevens and sensitively acted by a talented cast. The set, a drab box of a room which serves as Michael’s prison, and Lainie’s approximation of it, is perfect as is the atmospheric lighting which becomes a dramatic presence in itself.

Two Rooms is well worth a visit.

Two Rooms
Playwright: By Lee Blessing
Director: Byam Stevens
Cast: Jay Stratton as Michael, Paula Burton as Lainie, Matthew Floyd Miller as Walker, and Geneva Carr as Ellen
Set Design: Michael Ostaszewski
Costume Design: Arthur Oliver
Lighting Designer: Lara Dubin
Sound Design: Max Bussler
Running Time: Approx 2 hours, ten minutes with one ten minute intermission
August 2 -13, 2006 at Chester Town Hall (Middlefield Street off Route 20), Chester, MA
August 16-20 at Consolati Performing Arts Center (located on the campus of Southern Berkshire Regional School District in Sheffield)
Web Site:
Tox Office: 413-354-7771
Wednesday through Saturday at 8pm., with matinees Thursday and Sunday at 2:00pm.
Tickets: $22.50-27.50, $10 Students; group rates are available.
Wednesday through Saturday at 8pm., with matinees Thursday and Sunday at 2:00pm.
Reviewed by Shirley Safran on August 4th

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