Sex, Power, and Lupita on Broadway
This season, three Hollywood actresses—Michelle Williams, Saoirse Ronan, and Lupita Nyong’o—star in challenging plays focusing on dark personal relationships.
Being a star in Hollywood doesn’t always translate to Broadway success. Al Pacino and Bruce Willis tried the switch a few months ago and got universally panned. Now three Oscar-nominated actresses (including one winner) are taking their turn and showing the boys how it’s done.
They’re also giving audiences a new view about sex. If you think you know the line between right and wrong in sexual affairs, even when what we consider to be abuse is added to the mix, Michelle Williams in Blackbird, Saoirse Ronan in The Crucible, and Lupita Nyong’o in Eclipsed will shake you out of your complacency.
Williams, Ronan, and Nyong’o could parlay their Oscar status into big movie salaries instead of accepting Broadway pay. (Nobody is getting rich off these limited-run shows.)
But it’s almost a right of passage now for big stars to put themselves on the line and face a live audience—perhaps as a reminder of what they loved about acting in the first place. And these actresses have the satisfaction of knowing that their names and talents are bringing audiences to powerful shows that might otherwise not be seen. (Another problem with Willis and Pacino—they chose lousy commercial plays.)
When Michelle Williams first appears onstage in Blackbird, a distraught Jeff Daniels is dragging her into the lunchroom at some unnamed company. He’s spluttering and she’s overwrought. It turns out that they had a love affair 15 years ago and now she’s driven several hours to find him. He was 40 when they had their affair—and she was 12.
The bad guy and good guy (or girl) should be pretty clear here. But what you expect to be a play about vengeance and anger turns out to be far more subtle. Daniels’s character, who now calls himself Ray, spent three years in jail for his misdeeds and Williams’s Una reminds him that she was a child. But she was also in love with him.
Sure, it was a schoolgirl crush and he was the grownup who should have walked away. But he was also in love and now, these years later, the same feelings are on display. They want each other—but know they shouldn’t. Hurt and fear fight on the stage with passion and attraction.
Reviewer Ben Brantley wrote in The New York Times that Blackbird convinces us that “the shared history of Ray and Una….is indeed a love story.” That aroused angry comments, but it’s correct. Great performances reveal things you don’t otherwise say in polite company.
In a stunning monologue of several minutes, Una describes the night she and Ray ran away together and had sex in a small hotel. Afterward, he was horrified by what he had done and went to a bar for a drink.
Una makes it clear that her pain was not the sex—but the fear that he had left her. She went looking for him and didn’t know he had come back for her.
Both of them use the phrase “sexual abuse” at some point, but the words stick in their throat. It’s not how either of them sees the relationship.
Ray is convincing when he says that he’s not a pedophile—he loved only her. If they had reconnected that night, the intervening 15 years would have been very different.
Much of the rage Una feels is not at the sexual connection—but how society treated her. She didn’t want to turn in her lover and told authorities that nothing happened. But they tied her down and got his sperm as evidence. She is as horrified by that as anything else.
Williams, who has three Oscar nominations and won a Golden Globe playing Marilyn Monroe in My Week With Marilyn, brings a subtlety and depth to her fragile character.
Working with the fabulous script of playwright David Harrower, her crushing performance makes you wonder if the line between love and abuse is hazier than we admit. It’s a daring point of view in this age where a guy looking cross-wise at a woman classmate is enough to provoke campus protests.
Williams is extraordinary as she flickers amidst a flood of conflicting emotions—angry, vulnerable, yearning, confused. You can’t pin down what she’s feeling from moment to moment because Una can’t, either. Harrower makes his play all the more trying by having Una only 12 during the relationship.
Tiny as a bird and wearing a short, bouncy dress that accentuates her stick-like legs, Una is any girl confused about her burgeoning sexual desires—and how society defines them.
Also caught in the crosshairs of sexual longing and social acceptance is actress Saoirse Ronan, currently on Broadway in director Ivo van Hove’s compelling revival of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. As you may remember from high school English class, this is the one about the Salem witch trials, written as a parable at the time of the McCarthy hearings.
Fresh off her Oscar-nominated role in Brooklyn, Ronan is the perfect actress to bring the play into the present. She strides across the Broadway stage, as fierce and scary a creature as you’ll meet. Flaxen-haired and pale skinned, dressed in a schoolgirl’s uniform, she’s the ultimate Mean Girl, getting her posse of fellow blondes to fake seeing spirits—all to take vengeance on the (married) boy she’s hot for.
That married guy is John Proctor, an upright Puritan played by slender Brit Ben Whishaw. Ronan, as 17-year old Abigail, had a brief affair with him when she worked in their house. “You clutched my back…and sweated like a stallion” is all Miller’s script says, but Ronan lies down desirously on a table to eliminate any question. “I am waitin’ for you every night,” she says breathily.
John wants to put it out of his mind. Like Ray in Blackbird, he doesn’t want his whole life destroyed over a moment of weakness. Oh, but it will be. A woman at the time wasn’t allowed to have sexual needs, and Abigail lashes out to cover up her own desires.
With this revival done in modern clothes, the play seems to connect to other charges being tossed around these days, too. You can’t watch these plays without wondering why we remain so wildly judgmental about sexual behavior.
In Eclipsed the luminous Lupita Nyong’o, who won an Academy Award for Twelve Years A Slave, plays a young girl who stumbles into the compound of a rebel warlord during the Liberian revolution.
The women he’s already captured try to hide her, but she’s found and becomes another outlet for his sexual appetite. Having lost all identity, they call each other by numbers, beginning at Wife #1. She is simply Girl.
When the warlord (who we never see) comes by, the women line up, waiting to see which one needs to go off with him. A few minutes later, she will return, wash herself, and get on with the day.
Wife #2 becomes a soldier to escape him and Girl joins her. But she is trapped whatever she does. Like Michelle Williams, Nyong’o delivers a moving monologue that changes the play. Hers describes the atrocities she has committed as a soldier, standing by as another girl is raped and killed.
In all three plays, nobody takes off her clothes and groping is it a minimum. But the message from these terrific actresses is that sex and love are more complicated than we usually admit, and sometimes can ever imagine.