“Blackbird” Takes On New Perspective With St. Louis Actors’ Studio Production

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Elizabeth Birkenmeier confronts John Pierson in “Blackbird” at St. Louis Actors’ Studio. Photo: Patrick Huber

The only other time I saw David Harrower’s play, “Blackbird” was in the mid 2000’s at the Studio Theatre of the Rep. It was difficult to watch then and it has only become more difficult all these years later. In recent months the molestation of women and under age women (and men, for that matter) has lost all credibility for the accused- and rightly so. As we watch an older man try to rationalize his victimization of a 12 year old girl when he was 40 or so, there is no sympathy left.

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John Pierson and Elizabeth Birkenmeier in the St. Louis Actors’ Studio production of “Blackbird.” Photo: Patrick Huber

Una has found her abuser after many years and decides to visit Ray (now calling himself Peter) at his place of business. The next 80 minutes are painful to sit through and, unlike seeing the play the first time, there is no way to even begin to look at the situation from both perspectives. It is particularly telling when the audience sees what has happened to Una over the years and her mind set from the eyes of a child who thought she was “in love.”

Veteran actor and director John Pierson tackles the difficult role of Ray. He tries to make a plausible argument but you keep coming back to the fact that this girl was 12 years old when he became obsessed with her. The audience can perhaps feel his anguish but then you realize- she was 12 years old. Though convicted, he served a few years and was able to move away and map out a whole new life for himself including a new wife and family. It’s a remarkable performance from Mr. Pierson knowing that he truly is the villain in this piece.

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John Pierson leans in to make a point to Elizabeth Birkenmeier during “Blackbird” at St. Louis Actors’ Studio. Photo: Patrick Huber

The unusual thing about the performance of Elizabeth Birkenmeier as Una is her ability to stand her ground yet show some vulnerability for her abuser. She was labeled everything from precocious to a slut over the years as she sank into a life of loveless sex and extreme despair. The final, surprising moments are testament to how deeply she was wounded and affected by his actions.

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John Pierson agonizes as Elizabeth Birkenmeier describes her life during the St. Louis Actor’s Studio production of “Blackbird.” Photo: Patrick Huber

Annamaria Pileggi has directed with sympathy and a much needed cry for help. “Blackbird” is not an easy show to stomach and the vivid language and descriptions of the “affair” are really hard to take. Gasps from the audience are, I’m sure, a regular part of the play as they were when I saw it. Despite that, it’s a play that needs to be seen- more now than ever. With Larry Naser-style pedophiles still out there in the world and the ties to the even bigger movement of “Me Too,” this is probably more relevant today than it was in 2005 when it was first written.

A third cast member, Sienna Hahn, does a fine job as well and Patrick Huber’s set becomes another character between the stark look of an industrial break room and the metaphor of the messy state of that room with old lunch styrofoam containers and soda cans strewn about. Mr. Huber’s lighting design also helps create the loneliness of the work place while Teresa Doggett’s costumes highlight the contrasts with Ray’s business attire emphasizing his elderly demeanor (particularly the tie stretched out over his paunch) and Una’s buttoned up style showing no skin except her face.

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Elizabeth Birkenmeier hides from the rage of John Pierson in “Blackbird” at St. Louis Actors’ Studio. Photo: Patrick Huber

“Blackbird” has returned just in time to reflect the world that is changing today. It plays through February 25th at St. Louis Actors’ Studio. Give them a call at 314-458-2978 for tickets or more information.

 

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