Late last month, the parents of Austin Tice — an American journalist and former Marine taken hostage in Syria in 2012 — appeared on the "Today" show, telling host Matt Lauer that they believe their son is still alive. They admitted they hadn’t seen any recent proof, and they couldn’t go into details regarding their conversations with government officials, but they were hopeful.
This blip on the radar of the 24-hour news cycle served as a stark reminder of hostages being held in the Middle East, families who long for their return and the American government’s strict no-negotiation policy.
The long-running hostage crisis is the central focus of “Two Rooms,” a 1988 drama by American playwright Lee Blessing, running through July 22 at the Valiant Theatre and Lounge.
In the play, a wife fights for the return of her husband, Michael, a teacher who was kidnapped in Beirut. A year after his abduction, she’s torn between a government official who continues to urge patience and “cautious optimism” and an ambitious reporter who wants to make her the face of America’s frustration with a foreign policy that leaves citizens feeling abandoned.
Nothing feels stale or dated about this nearly 30-year-old play, in part, because of Blessing’s sharp writing, and, in part, because so little has changed.
“These people have been taking hostages for a thousand years,” says Michael, recounting the circumstances of his kidnapping. “They know how to do it.”
“Two Rooms” alternates between Michael (Liam Kraus), blindfolded and handcuffed, alone in a small room dictating “letters” to his wife, in an attempt to maintain both his sanity and his connection to the outside world. At home, Lanie (Cecile Monteyne) talks to him, too, having emptied out the couple’s home office in order to recreate the lonely isolation of his cell. This is also where she receives visits from Walker (Eric Charleston), the reporter, and Ellen (Lynae Leblanc), the State Department representative assigned to their case.
The play is political, of course, but it’s also personal. Blessing’s writing, an effective piece of dramatic realism, steers clear of both political finger-pointing and weepy melodrama. The production’s co-directors, Harold Gervais and Leslie Boles Kraus, strike a similar balance in the tone of the play, which simmers with barely contained frustration, rendered through strong emotional performances from all four actors.
What the play lacks — surprisingly, given the subject matter — is consistent, high-stakes drama.
When the story starts, Michael already has been held captive for over a year, so Lanie’s efforts to bring him home lack a sense of immediacy.
Her dealings — and his imprisonment — aren’t so much matters of life and death as drawn-out exercises in frustration and futility. By the time the crisis intensifies in the second act, the will-they-or-won’t-they situation feels like more of the same, rather than a push toward real climactic resolution.
The production does get a visceral kick from a pair of slideshows, first when Lanie shows snapshots to the reporter and again during an intelligence briefing from Ellen, that feature wall-sized projections of real-life hostages alongside young men brandishing AK-47s and rocket launchers.
“Two Rooms” doesn’t purport to offer solutions to the complex issues surrounding hostage crisis situations, and it refuses to draw clear lines between good and bad or right and wrong.
Instead of taking sides, the play opts for a more thoughtful, objective approach that considers multiple points of view.
But even though “Two Rooms” shies away from big conflicts and confrontations, it does give audiences a glimpse of the quiet heartbreak that lies just beneath those public battles.
WHEN: Through July 22
WHERE: The Valiant Theatre, 6621 St. Claude Ave.
INFO: valianttheatre.com or (504) 298- 8676