George C. Scott, out of Wise, Virginia, always brought to mind an Anglo-Saxon warrior on the verge of world annihilation. Joel Hammer, probably out of Cleveland Heights, gives off the aura of a wiry Rothschild descendant perpetually cooking up some deal for sex and/or profit.
It seems quite baffling that the latter actor reminds this critic so much of the former in Dobama's production of David Harrower's Blackbird. Perhaps it's the pent-up anger always so vividly displayed in their eyes. Both performers share the unpredictability of a walking time bomb. This leaves audiences agreeably nervous, never quite knowing when that anticipated volcanic flare-up will blow them out of their seats.
In casting Hammer as a former pedophile confronted 15 years later by his now 27-year-old victim, director Scott Plate has shown great perspicacity, for the lead role gives the actor the opportunity to do what he does best - suffer and simmer.
Inspired by a real-life incident, Blackbird premiered at the 2005 Edinburgh Festival and won the British 2007 Olivier Award as Best New Play. The playwright has skillfully appropriated the victimizer-becomes-the-victim premise of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, though that work's irony and poetry give way here to a more hard-edged realism, salted with dashes of Pinteresque ambiguity.
The piece is set in a tellingly garbage-strewn lunchroom, and as it commences, Harrower's Lolita, renamed Una, has shown up to confront her childhood abuser Ray. Dressed in a little black dress and boots, Una is simultaneously seductress and accuser. Ray, who has been humbled by prison service, has tried to turn his life around and at the same time struggles to justify his original crime and deny Una's past and present sexual appeal.
Oddly enough, the evening plays out like a darkly psychotic variation of Noel Coward's Private Lives - the battling of a mutually destructive couple who can't live together or apart and wreak havoc on those around them. Fortunately, the inspired casting doesn't stop with Hammer. With flashing green eyes and wounded ferocity, Alyssa Weldon is just the tiger to stand up to her co-star's intensity and thus lend the proceedings perfect balance. Besides demonstrating a balletic grace in her seductiveness, Weldon is particularly good at also suggesting the famished neediness of a love-starved 12-year-old.
Facing the dual challenge of staging for a three-sided arena and illuminating a morally complex and often ambiguous drama, director Plate sustains the necessary tension and isolates the alternating moments of intimacy and violent anger.
With new leadership and a permanent new home in the short-term prospect, this production bodes well for Dobama's future. It's done what theaters are supposed to do - choose their presentations wisely, cast them expertly and show the wherewithal to make them breathe with vibrant life.
Blackbird Through February 8 presented by Dobama Theatre Cleveland Play House 8500 Euclid Ave. 216.932.3396 www.dobama.org