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Tri-Lakes tackles the quagmire of U.S.- Mideast relations

Instead of gorging on NPR reports of the seemingly endless turf war in Israel/Palestine, treat yourself to a night of thoughtful perspective on the matter in the form of Tri-Lakes Theatre Group's and Director Jodi Papproth's production of Lee Blessing's Two Rooms. About two minutes into the play, you'll find yourself elevated from your seat into the very mental and passionate reality of a fictional but familiar hostage crisis. Four characters struggle to assert their will over this "act of God" or the act of some other power equally remote and equally capable of a puzzling proclivity to cruelty.

Michael (Chip MacEnulty), an American taken hostage somewhere in the Middle East, occupies both of the two rooms in the play: his holding cell and the living room back home where his wife, Lainie (Jennifer Dilger), experiences his presence as a warm spot in a void created by his absence. And yes, this is a warm spot that Lainie talks to and actually pets. Such sentimentality might just get annoying if she didn't have a backbone that has her threatening to destroy a subcontinent, if not crying on television. Though there were times when I wanted to see a few more ripples of toughness in her character, Dilger does a fantastic job bending to the many emotional demands of this role.

With a physicality on stage that suggests the curtailed possibilities of his life, Michael does more than sympathize with his captors (a condition Ellen describes as a typical and well-documented response to the circumstances); he offers the notion that his holding cell is someone else's place of employment, that he walked himself into this trap by naively photographing from the sidelines, and that he embodies a nation at risk of paying the piper on a person-by-person basis.

Meanwhile, breaking Lainie's tortured reverie at home, along come the saccharine visits from Walker Harris (Andrew Porter), a reporter, and Ellen Van Oss (Karen C. Kennedy), an agent from the State Department assigned to administer Lainie's reaction to her husband's fate.

Ellen mostly wants to save face on behalf of the government she only half believes in while grappling with her status as an indifferent bureaucrat, and Kennedy brings Ellen to life with the seamless conviction of a lady who just talked you into dropping a bundle on Mary Kay.

Walker's character, fleshed out with bright agility by Porter, has the redeeming quality of a self-acknowledged player. In short, he wants a story. He also wants to debunk the cooing malarkey offered up by Ellen's spin-doctoring. Walker's manipulation is carefully complicated by his altruistic and redemptive intentions, and when he hits his stride you might just want to buy cosmetics from him too.

The awkward times in this production come in the first scenes when Ellen and Walker turn up at Lainie's house at the same time and the stage seems impossibly too small to hold their conflicting interests. Also: Sure she's in a tortured limbo of uncertainty and grief, but should Lainie always sit on the floor while the others struggle for a place to put themselves? But when the confusion passes, the staging doesn't matter.

A word of caution: If you find yourself shifting in your seat, desperately fantasizing about sprinting around the block, don't worry; it's just the physical and emotional confinement of the story that puts an often-uncomfortable face onto a reality that's gotten all too close to home.

Hat's off to suspended disbelief.

-- Marina Eckler

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