The most nerve-wracking, edge-of-your-seat drama currently on view in Philadelphia doesn’t come from the pen of Agatha Christie or from the mind of a master plot-weaver like Martin McDonagh. Instead, it unspools from an unclassified, heavily redacted document recounting an FBI interrogation.
The old adage that truth is stranger than fiction — and more engrossing — proves undeniable once again.
Is This A Room, the latest offering from director Tina Satter and the performance-art collective Half Straddle, plays a brief local engagement in a co-presentation by the Annenberg Center and the Fringe Festival that’s Annenberg’s season-opener. Its tense, breathless 70 minutes dramatize the arrest and inquisition of Reality Leigh Winner, an Air Force veteran and military contractor who was convicted of leaking classified information that established a pattern of interference by Russian forces in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Winner pleaded guilty and is currently serving a sentence of five years and three months in federal prison — the most substantial punishment ever handed down for this kind of whistle-blowing.
Satter’s production exists within a tradition of documentary theater that includes playwrights like Anna Deavere Smith and Emily Mann, artists who extensively interview primary subjects and weave together narratives based on firsthand recollections of actual events. Yet she manages to push the genre somewhat further by relying only on what was said and done on June 3, 2017, the date on which Winner was apprehended by law enforcement officials at her Georgia home.
Every pause, sneeze, and grunt is preserved in her record of the encounter, and enacted with precision by an astonishing cast of four.
Emily C. Davis — who, it must be said, bears a striking resemblance to the person she portrays — crafts a nuanced yet utterly impenetrable study of a woman whose extraordinary intelligence becomes her greatest gift and ultimate downfall. She appears entirely guileless in her early encounters with the FBI agents (played by Frank Boyd, T.L. Thompson, and Becca Blackwell) who come to search her property and take her statement, to the degree that the audience must question how much of the proven facts of the case it wishes to believe.
Even when backed into a corner — as Winner often is by Satter’s striking physical choreography — Davis only reveals as much as she wishes, and every moment feels fully inhabited and immediately raw.
As costumed by Enver Chakartash in cut-off jeans and canary yellow Converse sneakers, Davis feels a world apart from her interrogators, who enact familiar tropes of masculinity and police procedure. (Boyd particularly excels at presenting the insidious undertow of good-cop geniality.)
That Thompson and Blackwell are both nonbinary/trans actors underscores the subtle ways in which gender is performed in this story. Parker Lutz’s industrial-gray set design and Thomas Dunn’s stark lighting add a further level of Kafkaesque banality to a story that suggests no patriotic deed goes unpunished.
Of course, reactions to this piece might fall across political lines; a conservative viewer could easily peg Winner as a willing traitor in the same way that a liberal audience member might regard her as an American hero. And it would be naïve not to recognize a directorial hand in Satter’s storytelling, even as myriad promotional materials reinforce the rigorously faithful recounting of events.
Remember that even in the case of documentary, we are always viewing events through someone’s specific lens.
Yet Is This A Room stops far short of didacticism, perhaps because its creators are so enamored of the basic facts of Winner’s case. The action stops abruptly and well before the now-familiar denouement. Perhaps, in the mind of the spectator, that is where the real drama actually begins.
Is This A Room: Reality Winner Verbatim Translation
Through Sept. 15 at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 2121 N Gratz St.