|IS THIS A ROOM|
Does the punishment fit the crime? That’s a conversation we have a lot in America these days, whether it’s after watching the televised trial of Derek Chauvin, the police officer charged in the murder of George Floyd; reading various reports of the cases of celebrities like Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, who paid to get their children into prestigious colleges; or even after viewing this week’s episode of “Law & Order: SVU.” It’s also a question likely to be on the minds of audiences after seeing “Is This A Room,” now at the Lyceum Theatre.
Here, writer-director Tina Satter presents an unedited “word-for-word” reenactment of the initial one-hour interrogation of a 25-year-old Georgia woman named Reality Winner (portrayed by the remarkable Emily Davis) by two kindly-but-dogged FBI agents (superbly played by Pete Simpson and Will Combs) at her home. As we quickly realize, despite some banal chit-chat, this is no ordinary conversation.
However, unless you are a news junkie or, at the very least, have read Winner’s entire Wikipedia entry before entering the theater, you will leave the Lyceum knowing the ultimate outcome – Winner spent nearly five years in jail -- but with a less-than clear picture about what Winner’s crime really was.
What we do discover is that Winner was a government linguist who, at the time of her June 2017 questioning, deliberately mailed an article from an NSA website article to a little-known news site. She was unhappy in both her personal life (having recently broken up with her boyfriend and was stuck living in an undesirable neighborhood) and her professional one (because she was working for a military contractor rather than directly for the U.S. government), factors which may have led to her fateful decision.
What we don’t learn from this “play,” among many other relevant things, is that the article concerned possible Russian interference in the 2016 election of President Donald Trump, as well as all of the legal and political maneuvering that happened after her arrest – facts that would (and did) make Winner’s saga more compelling
The work’s troubling sins of omissions aside, what’s on stage is often riveting. Fidgeting around the Lyceum’s too-large blank stage, Davis miraculously captures Winner’s quicksilver changes in personality – from quasi-innocence to genuine concern over her pets to wily if desperate evasiveness to outright defiance. When Winner states, with all apparent sincerity, that she “never intended to be a Snowden,” we believe her even as we question her motives and her judgment.
In the end, though, Satter’s dramaturgical device may bother many people less than it does me. But I think by not telling the whole story, “Is This A Room” is almost as guilty as Winner of letting the American people down.
By Brian Scott Lipton
Emily Davis, Becca Blackwell, Will Cobbs, Pete Simpson
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New York, NY 10036