Space to Grieve

Lee Blessing's Two Rooms explores grief, not by dramatizing volatile moments but through the mundane, repetitive act of waiting. Sure, there are emotional climaxes in this play, but they feel somehow muted by all the waiting that Lainie (Katie Tuminelly) has to do. She is waiting for news of her husband, Michael (Derek Lucci), an American University in Beirut professor who was taken hostage by Lebanese vigilantes during what was to be his last semester abroad. Lainie empties Michael's office in an attempt to exist in a space like the one he might be in. She sits on a small rug on the bare floor talking to her memory of him. Blessing's stage directions collapse the two rooms—Michael's office and his actual holding cell—into one; when Lainie and Michael share the stage, it is as if their separate rooms have been layered on top of one another, and the space between them seems less so.

Lighting designer Bryan Keller handles the stage and staging well; subtle tonal shifts throughout the play evoke the spaces clearly. These are intimate scenes of longing and grief as Lainie and Michael speak letters to each other and gather strength from their imagined conversations.

Lainie's grief is valuable, though, to those who can either profit from it or be damaged by it. The media cannot help but seek out and publish Lainie's dramatic response to her husband's absence, while the State Department cannot allow a desperate women to jeopardize its covert operations or intelligence gathering abroad.

Lainie must negotiate the largely self-serving interests of both the State Department (represented by Ellen, the woman assigned to her case) and the media (exemplified by Walker, a zealous reporter). Though some of his exits were a bit abrupt, Jacob Knoll's Walker is generally engaging and open, someone we immediately want to trust and listen to. Someone we don't mind Lainie listening to as well.

Perhaps director Kara-Lynn Vaeni's decision to make Ellen (Emily Zeck) insensitive was second nature: who wants to sympathize with a government agent? But the production would benefit from a more nuanced portrait of this character, perhaps by an actor who can better juggle Ellen's obligation within the governmental bureaucracy and her exhaustion in the face of that obligation. As it is, Zeck comes off like a finicky schoolmarm better suited for a second-grade classroom than a midlevel State Department position.

The predictable struggles for Lainie's trust by Ellen and Walker are mediated, most of all, by Lucci's voice. It's a strange thing when one actor's voice—the medium through which he must present this character—becomes itself a powerful character in a production. When the play starts, we see Michael sitting alone in the bare room, talking to Lainie about everything and anything. Lucci's voice is somnolent and soothing, a perfect vehicle for Blessing's surprisingly poetic metaphors. I found myself wanting to get back to that cell, wanting to hear more from the man who talks his way through such a harrowing experience.

This is Checkpoint Productions's first show, and it's competently produced, thanks in part to the preponderance of Yale School of Drama alumni. Once they get a few more shows under their belts, this may be a group to keep watching.

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