Is This A Room is a gripping, highly recommended piece of theater, and also an unexpectedly intricate ballet. The 70-minute, deservedly multi-award winning play, which opens on Broadway tonight at the Lyceum Theatre, is an enactment of the transcript of what was said when the FBI first came to the Augusta, Georgia, home of former Air Force linguist and intelligence contractor Reality Winner on June 3, 2017.
Winner, then 25, went on to be formally accused of leaking evidence about Russian interference in the 2016 election to The Intercept. In 2018, Winner was sentenced to five years and three months in federal prison for the crime. She is now, as The Daily Beast recently reported, serving out the rest of her sentence at her mother Billie Winner-Davis’ home in Kingsville, Texas. She will be officially free on Nov. 23.
What we see on stage is that first interrogation, exactly as it verbally unfolded. The only things that Tina Satter, who conceived and directed Is This A Room, imagines are the bodily movements of the principals, and a spatial theatrical setting for their nervy confrontation. We also don’t see the true number of agents that were in Reality Winner’s home that day—11 rather than the three we see on stage.
If you know nothing about Reality Winner, read up beforehand or afterwards. Do not expect Is This A Room do that job. This is a piece of very specific dialog, and while it lays out Winner’s alleged crimes it does not set out to be a defining document of what preceded the FBI raid, or the truth or wha actually occurred.
The title of the play comes from something said during the interrogation, but Satter finds question marks both ugly, and in this case too constraining for a such a different kind of play. She also insists on an upper case A in the title—leading to confusion for editors who traditionally use lower case.
In this small company of actors working in impressively fluid unison, Emily Davis as Winner is constantly being surrounded and boxed in by the three men: Agent Garrick (Pete Simpson), Agent Taylor (Will Cobbs), and the almost spectral figure of Unknown Male (Becca Blackwell). Her home invaders are the creepiest mix of folksy and forceful.
The stage, designed by Parker Lutz and lit by Thomas Dunn, is bare, with raised platforms on either side of a flat mid-channel. Sometimes the actors disappear off to the side, and we imagine it to be the other rooms of Winner’s house (one of the successes of the production is that we absolutely feel that house, even though we cannot see it in front of us).
Very cleverly designed puppets embody her dog and cat, unnamed in the play and named Mickey and Mina in reality. They look, spookily in the best way, half-real and half-not. There is uncomfortable accuser-accused levity over pets, and how to deal with her cat who won’t come out from under the bed. When the action hits a redacted name or event, the lights flash off, and the stage is thrown into momentary darkness.
The play was performed off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre before the pandemic, and has toured. Davis has played Winner throughout, and has now become friendly with her subject. Davis portrays Winner as both terrified and cocky, depending on the moment.
The two agents question Winner intently about what she is accused of, and then chat breezily about dog breeds. Winner is concerned about the safety of the her cat and dog, but also—this is not said in the play—she was terrified that if she went running after a scared and bolting animal, she herself might have ended up shot. Winner, squirming in front of us as her home is invaded, absolutely makes that fear clear.
That June day, the agents and Winner spoke in a back room of the house, and Winner, her mother recently told me, found herself literally cornered by two much larger men, not knowing how the situation would play out. The theatrical distillation of the encounter affords Winner a little more space.
The men sometimes loom over her, clearly using their size as a significant aid of intimidation. The group sometimes moves in formation. Time slows in literal slo-mo in one sequence, and in another brief moment, she stands up to them. But even though a Broadway stage is way bigger than the back-room of a home, Davis plays Reality as utterly trapped, with nowhere to go. It is an astonishing, intense performance.
What emerges, engagingly and sinisterly, is an exercise in just how strange human communication is. One would think, given the gravity of why they are there, the agents would be all about what Reality has or hasn’t done. But there is so much small-talk, so much chatter about nothing, around the main event.
Agent Garrick has nasal issues, and every sniff and cough that issued forth from him is contained in the transcript, and so issues forth on stage right next to Winner and his colleague—in these COVID-sensitive times, where audiences are watching the action on stage while wearing masks, having shown proof of vaccination at the door, this is a brave directing choice!
Davis’ performance runs the gamut of swaggering confidence to quivering fear. However she is feeling, there is always a horrible sense, contained in her darting eyes and hunched shoulders, that life is about to change irrevocably. She sees a terrifying, invisible precipice right in front of her, and we see it too.
The play is important, Winner’s mother told The Daily Beast, because “people often skip over what happened that day—the fact that Reality wasn’t read her Miranda rights, and that 11 agents stormed into her home and that she was trapped in the back room of her house where she told them she was not comfortable, and where she was coerced to confess to a crime. After that day she never saw freedom again.”
The constraints of the source material strengthen the play. There is no evidence, no brave and sterling speeches that land the moral fulcrum on one side or another. Perhaps because we are so used to such theatrical and psychological prompts, the audience watching Is This a Room do so more intently than usual. We must simply listen to the words.
Typically in the fiction we read and watch we are signposted to regret and defiance, self-discovery, and catharsis, but the rigorous literalism of Is This A Room subverts all that. There is no escape for Reality, this is quite the opposite; this is the act of the door closing. All that we familiarly imbibe from pieces of film, TV, and theater—sympathize with this person; that person’s the baddie; here’s a sad bit; wow, what a set piece—are not present in Is This A Room. This is a moment in time rendered as startling drama, an ice bath of a piece of theater—bracing, provocative, and designed to throw you off balance just as much as Reality Winner was that day in June 2017.