Story: Peter has had a long day at the office. His hair is disheveled, his rolled-up sleeves reflect his weariness and the conference room he’s getting ready to leave is strewn with trash and litter.

Suddenly he is jarred by the presence of a young woman at the door. She asks him if he recognizes her and slowly he says that he does. Her name is Una, and 15 years ago, at age 12, she had engaged in a sexual relationship with Peter, who was a 40-year-old adult at the time.

He was known as Ray then, before he went to prison for child molestation and before he met a woman who has shared his life for the last seven years.

Peter is shocked to see Una and soon turns defensive and angry. He asks her why she has tracked him down and what she wants. For her part, Una is still confused by all that has happened to her and which radically altered her life. She bears significant psychological scars from her childhood encounter with a middle-age man, and she wants him to know that.

Confusion, anger, lust and uncertainty fill the room as Peter and Una look each other over and attempt to verbalize their conflicting emotions. What happened between them 15 years ago continues to haunt and torment them, in different ways, in the present. Can either of them come to terms with their terrible history?

Highlights: Winner of the 2007 Olivier Award for Best New Play, this one-act drama by Scottish playwright David Harrower is given a tense, taut interpretation in a current production at St. Louis Actors’ Studio under director Annamaria Pileggi’s carefully observant eye.

Other Info: Pileggi extracts a pair of intricately nuanced performances from John Pierson and Elizabeth Berkenmeier as the tortured souls Peter and Una. They’re on stage for the entirety of the show’s 90 minutes, performing on a set smartly designed by Patrick Huber that looks as dirty and unkempt as Peter’s perverse desires.

Huber presents a squalid, claustrophobic room where tension can suffocate the characters, who are just beyond the reach of his well-lit hallway behind dingy windows. Jess Stamper’s props complement the forlorn quarters, while costume designer Teresa Doggett dresses Pierson in non-descript business attire and Birkenmeier in some mildly fashionable attire for a young woman.

The sordid subject matter gives STLAS associate artistic director Pierson and Birkenmeier a chance to demonstrate their acting range. Pierson knows his way around perverse characters, as his star turn in The Goat, or Who’s Sylvia? a few years back expertly indicated. Here, he demonstrates Peter’s ability to weasel around his illicit feelings for a young girl in quietly unsettling fashion along with outbursts of temper which convey Peter’s nasty nature.

Birkenmeier shows Una’s flat personality, perhaps a product of her history of sexual abuse, but also portrays Una as determined to size up this man who wrought so much misery in her life and continues to haunt her years later.

Interestingly, the petite Birkenmeier’s portrayal differs substantially from an interpretation by a taller, more forceful Carmin Goodine in a production in The Rep’s Studio Theatre in 2009. Birkenmeier’s depiction seems less aggressive and more vulnerable than that previous reading, though no less significant. It shows how subtle variations can equally imbue such vivid characters.

Sienna Hahn effectively contributes with a small but telling portrayal of a minor character in Harrower’s harrowing tale.

Blackbird is provocative, unsettling and sordid but also fascinating and as mesmerizing as a train wreck. Peter and Una are casualties of this severe psychological accident, with their lingering scars as proof of its intensity.

Play: Blackbird

Company: St. Louis Actors’ Studio

Venue: Gaslight Theater, 358 North Boyle

Dates: February 15, 16, 17, 18, 22, 23, 24, 25

Tickets: $30-$35; contact 1-800-982-2787 or ticketmaster.com

Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.

Photos courtesy of Patrick Huber

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