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Wash Hall features powerful ‘Two Rooms’

Observer Scene | Wednesday, September 6, 2006

Since its inception, the goal of art has been to explore the human condition. Lee Blessing’s “Two Rooms” does exactly this. Performed by the St. Edward’s Hall Players, it references and creates a world that is full of pain and suffering, and it brings hope in a multitudinous fashion out of the depression that surrounds the characters.

The Lebanese Civil War of the 1980s is the time period Blessing chooses as the play’s setting. Michael Wells, an American professor working in Beirut, is kidnapped by one of the many warring factions involved in the civil war along with his colleague, Jim Mathison.

His wife, Lainie Wells, is in the United States attempting to do all she can through her State Department liaison, Ellen Van Oss, to get Michael from his captors back home alive. A reporter, Walker Harris, discovers Lainie’s situation and pleads with her to make the story national through both personal interviews and television press conferences. He believes this will exert pressure on the U.S. government, which he feels is not doing enough to bring back Americans who are hostages in Lebanon.

It is never said which faction captured Michael. All that is known is it is hostile to the United States and captured Michael to use for bargaining.

However, the political situations that the play is set in do not form the crux of the play. At its core, “Two Rooms” is about the love shared between Michael and Lainie. Blessing’s script allows Lainie and Michael to talk to one another and share their respective pain through what might be dreams or conversations they would have had were they able to talk to one another.

In spite of its obvious political overtones, director Patrick Vassel does not allow this production to become neither a scathing political commentary nor a romantic melodrama. Although the script could easily fall into both categories, Vassel takes this play down a fine line that brings all the characters together in an inspired story of relationships – a marital relationship, a relationship between the press and war victims and the relationship between a people and their government. The former is primary, but the other two are intricately related to the first.

Vassel is able to weave these three together into a passionate, moving piece of theater without dipping into sappy romance or vehement anti-war attitudes.

Senior Drew McElligott marvelously plays the central figure and hostage, Michael Wells. The love he has for his profession and students is noted in a scene in which he discusses the decision made to stay one more term, even though the violence in the area is rapidly escalating.

However, it is the love for his wife where McElligott’s acting dexterity is apparent. He is able to switch from intense pain to intense love and compassion with an aptitude rarely seen in a student production at Notre Dame. His guards beat him and the fear is apparent, but a hope he may one day see his wife keeps him alive.

The scenes that involve both he and Lainie are moving, and one almost forgets that Michael is halfway across the world in Lebanon while Lainie is sitting in her home in the United States.

Sarah Loveland, a senior and McElligott’s counterpart, is the softness that brings this play away from simple political criticism and into more profound areas of humanity. In many ways, this character cannot deal with the loss of her husband and, through most of the play, stays with a mat that she keeps in Michael’s office to stay in touch with him.

The conflict of “Two Rooms” is centered on Lainie as the avenues of government, the press and home all converge on her, and Loveland is certainly up to the task of moving from depression, to hope, to anger and back around again through all of these and more at the same time. The love of her life is captive and she does all she can to bring him back.

In one scene, Lainie discusses the habit of cuckoo birds to lay their eggs in other birds’ nests. The cuckoo will lay an egg in a warbler nest, the egg will hatch with an indentation on its back and the cuckoo chick will push the warbler chicks out of the nest.

Loveland, as Lainie, uses this analogy to describe how she feels. It is never quite clear who is what in the analogy.

What is clear, through Loveland’s performance, is that her “nest” – her home – is empty and she is starving for her husband, with no sure method of bringing him home.

Sophomores Matt Goodrich and Emily Balthasar bring superb performances as Walker Harris and Ellen Van Oss, respectively. Goodrich brings a multi-faceted approach to his character. While Harris certainly wants to help Lainie bring Michael home, there is a sense that he is a reporter who disagrees with what the government is doing and wants to use Lainie’s experience for his political agenda. Goodrich is able to find a mix of these emotions in Harris.

Balthasar brings a similar character to the play, albeit a different one. Van Oss’s complication comes from her job – she wants to be a good bureaucrat and help her administration, and she wants to tell Lainie all will be well in the end. Van Oss is apt is as a troubled (however below the surface) government representative.

“Two Rooms” is a play that supplies the audience with war and all its ugliness and, in many ways, constancy.

The pain through which all of these characters are subject to is a better way to explore wartime pain than any blurb or news show ubiquitous on all of today’s news networks.

The raw emotional humanity that CNN or Fox News cannot – or will not bring to the table – is in this play. Whatever one’s political views, there is something human in this play that everyone will be able to connect to.

“Two Rooms” will show in the Washington Hall Lab Theater today, Friday, Sunday and Monday at 7:30pm. Tickets will be $5 and available at the door.