When it comes to removing a presence from a house, there’s the standard ghostbusting fare: incense, incantations and holy water. In the play “Two Rooms,” written by Lee Blessing, wife Lainie Wells instead embraces the supernatural and clings to the imprint of her husband’s spirit that lingers in his study.
Directed by David Woldseth and presented by the Madison Theater Guild, the play begins with Michael Wells’ recitation of a letter to his wife Lainie from a bunker in Beirut, where terrorists have held the former schoolteacher hostage for three years in a stand against the United States government.
“Two Rooms” follows the story of a husband and wife whose love bests the expanse of the Atlantic Ocean. It is this same degree of devotion that compels Lainie to employ the help of newspaperman Walker to speak out against the lethargy of the government in seeking her husband’s release. Although superficially the play can be interpreted as a war-torn love story, on a deeper level it is a criticism of United States’ foreign policy that frequently puts the interests of big business ahead of American lives.
As showcased in the play’s title, the “room” is an important symbol in the story. One of the two rooms provides an emotional sanctuary and the other a hell on Earth. During her husband’s captivity, Lainie frequents his study, citing it as “the one place I can go to find Michael.” While Lainie seeks confinement in a room, Michael yearns to escape. Although the play is titled “Two Rooms,” there’s arguably a third. The mind becomes a sanctuary for both husband and wife as they find comfort in their respective hallucinations of the other.
Besides its success as a romance, the play attains a greater level of achievement as a charged political statement, placing the functions of the government and the media at odds. The fictional conflict in Beirut serves as a representation for the United States’ presence in the modern conflicts of Arab world. Throughout her husband’s captivity, Lainie petitions the aid of the government, only to find that talking to Washington is the “definition of talking to yourself.” The play forces the audience to take an active role in the storyline and define their position either for or against the government represented by a stiffly detached official, Ellen.
The play confuses the lines of morality in the classic debate: is it better to sacrifice many lives for an individual or the individual for the many? Audience reactions diversify as the plot introduces a variety of scenarios designed to challenge even the most concrete viewers. At times, the audience may even feel pity for a culture where young boys volunteer to clear mine fields for soldiers, and as they run across the land, they are wrapped in blankets so their bodies will be easier to gather after the mines are detonated.
The structure of the play, reliant on soliloquy, excels as a probe of characters’ innermost feelings. Soliloquy characterizes most of Michael’s dialogue when he isn’t recounting dialogue from his confinement. Ellen’s soliloquy interrupts the linear flow of the play. Its abruptness jars the audience and begins with the phrase, “What does it mean to be an American?” Standing with her flag pin primly attached to her lapel, it seems the audience will be subjected to a presentation of government propaganda. However, as pictures of dead soldiers flash in a slideshow across the screen and Ellen discusses the West as an ideal to be both “detested and desired,” it becomes clear to the audience this isn’t your standard Washington rigmarole.
The presentation marks the first time in the play Ellen exhibits human emotion under her indifferent veneer. The power of the soliloquy intensifies through further breakdown of Ellen’s fa?ade and the conclusion that for her part in the government’s international agenda the “time will come when, on an individual basis, we will simply have to pay.”
As a cast, Kate Ewings, Marja Barger, Christopher Younggren and Scott Wieland were dynamic, realistic and emotionally invested in the storyline. Ewings portrays the role of stricken wife Lainie with sincerity evident in her every motion. The inflection in her voice conveys her strong pain to the audience. There is even vulnerability in her movements as she wraps her green sweater frequently, as if trying to drive out an internal cold.
Barger’s robotic movements and tone fit Ellen’s representation of the emotionally void government official, while Younggren’s constant forward motion as Walker creates a magnetic chemistry on stage. Only Wieland, cast in a principle role as Michael, fails to match the high quality of the other three actors. At times, the tone of Michael’s voice seems an inappropriate fit to the situation at hand. As he recounts his abduction, his voice feels contrived, as if he is instead telling a story to a small child.
Ultimately, the Madison Theater Guild has delivered a play sure to make each audience member view the continuous international violence on the news with renewed sensitivity. Much like Michael’s spirit lingers in his study, the intense emotions created by this play remain with viewers long after the spotlight dims.
4 stars out of 5.
The Madison Theater Guild presents “Two Rooms” at the Bartell Theatre from February 19 to March 7.