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The human factor

The personal and political collide in IPFW’s production of Two Rooms

By Michael Summers

michael_summers@fortwaynereader.com

Fort Wayne Reader

2008-11-06


The story told in Lee Blessing’s Two Rooms seems torn right from today’s headlines — a Middle East in turmoil; terrorists; kidnapping; a U.S. government trying to balance its idealistic policies with events in “the real world”; and a media trying to define its role to a suspicious public.

But here’s the kicker: the play, which begins its run at IPFW on November 14, was first produced in 1988. The particulars may have changed, but many aspects of the story are uncomfortably familiar today. “It sounds like it was written yesterday,” says director Jeff Cassazza. “You switch a few names or a few countries, and it could have been written yesterday.”

The setting is Beirut, where Michael, an American teacher, has been kidnapped by Shi’ite Muslims and held for years. Back in the U.S., his wife Lainie waits in Michael’s old den, which she has stripped of furnishings and momentos, and tries to contend with Walker, a journalist, and Ellen, a representative from the State Department.

Cassazza says Two Rooms — which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and was named the best play of 1988 by Time magazine — has a lot to say about politics and power, but what really attracted him to the play was how Blessing resisted turning the work into a polemic. Everyone on stage is a fully-realized character rather than an ideological mouthpiece. “The way it’s written, it could be a very political play,” he says. “It could be a comment on terrorism. It could be critical of how the government reacts to terrorists. It could also be a comment on how as Americans, we expect our government to save us, but we also expect them to stay out of our way… until we need saving.”

But at its heart, the play is about the people who get caught up in these larger global conflicts. “The personalized story is this story of Lainie and her husband,” he says. “In any kind of theater, you’re trying to make it personal, you’re trying to make it human. What draws us in to these four people is that they’re all three-dimensional characters. There’s this personal side to it. The play puts humanity in all of them.”

Jon Kasunic plays Michael, the hostage. “I have these monologues, which are like letters he’s sending to his wife,” he explains. “Without actually writing them down, he’s just kind of thinking out loud.” Michael also appears to the other characters like a dream or a ghost, and sometimes serves as a reflection on their own feelings. To Ellen (Tamara Cummins), the State Department Representative keeping Lainie updated on the government’s progress, Michael is sort of a guilty conscience. To journalist Walker (Chad Kennerk), Michael is the embodiment of the fine line he has to walk between exploitation and professionalism.

For Kasunic, playing a character in such distressing circumstances is somewhat difficult. “These people are in a situation which is almost unfathomable,” he says. “(Michael) talks about seeing car bombings and bodies… I’m having to imagine all this stuff while I’m saying these monologues, and it conjures a lot of dark feelings.”

At the same time, Kasunic says the story is too important for him not to commit to the character. Two Rooms gives audiences a different perspective on the conflicts it addresses. “On the news, you don’t see the wife going through losing someone, the spouse who didn’t sign up for this, who is not the spouse of a soldier.”

Elizabeth Alberding, who plays Michael’s wife Lainie, says her character is someone who is very aware of what is going on around her. “She doesn’t miss a beat,” Alderbing says. “I have to develop such a hyper-awareness of everything little thing the other characters do.”

Still, Lainie is trying to make sense of her current situation. A bird watcher and an expert in natural science, Lainie sees parallels between her own life and what she sees in nature. “She tells stories about how it seems like what happens in nature is so cruel, and she relates that to her life,” explains Alberding. “If she can figure out how this happens in nature, she can figure out why it happened to her.”

And though Michael’s kidnappers never appear on stage, you get a sense of their perspective as Michael and the other characters try to understand what it means to live in a seemingly constant war zone. “If you look at it from their perspective, they’re dealing with this horrible killing all the time,” Cassazza says. “As one character points out, Americans haven’t had to fight for the ground they stand on since the Civil War, and so we don’t understand what it is when people are arguing over a hundred feet of land.”

The fact that Two Rooms not only refuses to demonize the kidnappers but also doesn’t really identify a villain at all is what makes the piece so powerful. Alberding says that no matter what your politics may be, Two Rooms is not the play for anyone seeking to have their opinions reinforced. “The core of the story is a love story between Michael and Lainie that transcends distance,” Alberding says. “You should really look at it as someone’s life. This is what the relatives of hostages go through, this is what people involved in this sort of thing go through. It’s really about these people’s lives. There’s no one perspective, and I think that’s the beauty of the play.”

IPFW Department of Theatre presents Two Rooms
Nov. 14, 15, 20, 21, 22 at 8:00 p.m.
Nov. 16 and 23 at 2:00 p.m. Sign Language Interpreted Performance Sunday, Nov. 23
Studio Theatre in Kettler Hall
Admission for IPFW students with I.D. is free
$14 Adults, $10 Seniors and Groups of 10 or more
$12 Faculty/Staff/Alumni
$5 Students 18 and under
$8 Other “college” students with ID
Box Office: 260-481-6555
TTD: 260-481-4105
For more information visit www.ipfw.edu/vpa/theatre/

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