What I love about the "X-Files" is that underneath all the UFO sightings and lone gunmen conspiracies, there are much more plausible truths of how the government, the public, and the individual all struggle to control information. They're the kind of issues that came up in real life during the Lebanon hostage crisis and post-9/11 kidnappings in the Middle East. Strip away bright alien ships and abductions in the "X-Files" and you've still got a story about vivid characters and how they survive in the worst of circumstances.
Lee Blessing's play Two Rooms is also about the control of information and survival. The story follows Michael Wells, an American hostage in Lebanon who spends three years handcuffed and blindfolded in a cell. Back in the United States, his wife, Lainie, spends her days in Michael's office, which she's stripped down to just a mattress in order to connect with her husband's situation. The same set is used for the two rooms where husband and wife sometimes imagine being back together. Meanwhile, a journalist, Walker Harris, who is hungry for a good news story, visits Lainie. Ellen Van Oss, a state department liaison, also visits her, equally hungry to keep the hostage information concealed.
In Montana Rep Missoula's production of Two Rooms, directed by Daniel L. Haley, Salina Chatlain plays Van Oss, the stern government agent, with terrific restraint. She's like the Smoking Man in the "X-Files": pragmatic and mysterious, her presence shadowy and ominous. She says, without a hint of irony: "American citizens have to realize that when we take a risk, the U.S. government can't always save us. That the time comes when we—on an individual basis—will simply have to pay." When she does show emotion it's startling and fleeting.
On the other hand, Arcadea Jenkins as Lainie and Bobby Gutierrez as Michael must navigate extremely emotional waters. And here's where the production sinks. The sorrows of the play feel heavy-handed and manipulative, relying on circumstance rather than character to deliver the pain, something stories about cancer or the death of child do all the time.
Jenkins plays Lainie as a woman forced to both mourn her husband and hope for his return. She's sad, but it's hard to imagine who she is beyond that emotion. To her credit, Jenkins hardly overacts. Yet it's hard to see her as a tangible person. She has no interesting mannerisms to cling to. There's little to hook us into her particular hostage story. She loves birds, but her stories of warblers become yet another heavy-handed way of telling us about her loss. She becomes a martyr, a symbol of grief, when we need a glimpse of heroism.
Gutierrez does create some character around his Michael. You can picture him before he became a hostage—a funny guy, a dude who adored his wife. And he has good lines to work with. He says, "Yesterday one of the guards told me I'd been here for three years. I didn't know what he meant," without dramatizing it, which makes the line stunning.
Eric D. Hersh steals the show as Walker, the journalist. He brings life to the stage, delivering lines that seem spontaneous. He allows his desperation to seep out a little, but not too much. He interrupts his sentences with nervous sips of champagne. You feel the way he's torn between getting a good scoop, sheltering Lainie from more pain and justifying his role in her situation. He's like Gary Shandling playing a serious role: There's a playful warmth simmering just below the surface of his determined demeanor.
Here's my only other beef—and this might be more with the script. The "two rooms" concept allows Lainie and Michael to imagine being together even while they're apart. But on stage, they actually are physically together, holding each other on the mattress and talking with one another. I know I'm supposed to imagine that they're imagining being together, but somehow this kind of setup makes their pain seem less keen and immediate. It's harder to remember that they're apart and so, harder to care. I also get that that's the point: Nothing can keep them apart. I just wish it didn't seem so cheesy here.
There are some great ideas in this play. A hostage crisis? Who isn't intrigued by that? But just as with the the "X-Files," Two Rooms needs more than political issues and sad feelings to float its characters.