Review by Carol Rocamora . . .
If she really did commit a crime, then why do we feel so outraged for her – and so frightened for ourselves?
I’m speaking of Reality Winner. She’s the protagonist in Tina Satter’s Is This A Room, trapped in a scene of such increasing menace that you may want to flee the theatre, hurry home, and hide under your bed.
Menace. That’s the feeling you get from watching this play about a true event. On June 3, 2017, Reality Winner, a 25-year-old former Air Force intelligence specialist and military linguist, was visited at her home in Augusta, Georgia by a trio of FBI agents. She was suspected of leaking proof of Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election. The FBI agents questioned her outside her home, in her yard, and in the back room of her rental home about “possible mishandling of classified information,” as one of the agents puts it.
Is This A Room is a unique piece of documentary theatre – taken from literal transcripts of the conversation taped by the FBI. In 70 taut, tense minutes, it follows the event chronologically, word for word – from the moment when Winner, returning home from the grocery store, encounters the three agents in her driveway. The dialogue is banal and conversational – after an initial exchange of trite greetings (“Hey how are you”?), the agents inform her that they have a warrant to search her house and her car. The exchange is mundane for the first half of the 70 minutes – involving her groceries, the dog and cat in the house, the car keys, and so on. They exchange comments about the raising of pets so casually, so normally, you’d think they were neighbors.
But throughout the mundane exchange, there’s a growing sense of menace, enhanced by Satter’s superb, exacting direction. The overlapping dialogue (including incomplete sentences with grammatical errors) becomes indecipherable at times. The three agents surround Reality and close in on her threateningly, as if entrapping her. Where there are redactions in the text, there are sudden blackouts. Occasionally, there is an eerie spotlight on the traumatized Reality. There is even one slow-motion sequence. At one point, a third agent (“Unknown Male,” played by Becca Blackwell) asks: “Is this a room?” indicating a spot on the empty stage, evoking the absurdity of Kafka. The result is surreal.
“Have you ever taken anything out of the building?” “Did you print anything out?” The questions by the three agents grow more and more pointed. “We know a lot more,” says Agent Taylor (played by Will Cobbs), threateningly. “Maybe you made a mistake,” suggests Agent Garrick (played by Pete Simpson), the lead agent and the one who seems to be most empathetic to her situation.
The identity and contents of the document in question are never revealed throughout the play. Still, in the course of 70 minutes, the FBI agents are able to extract a confession without reading Winner her rights – a clear violation of the law. “I wasn’t trying to be a Snowden,” she confesses finally. “Yeah. I guess. Yeah, I screwed up royally.” Our being kept in the dark as to the specifics of the charges – all the way through to the end of the play – makes the feeling of menace even stronger, and the cumulative effect all the more frightening and surreal.
Here are the actual facts pertaining to Winner’s arrest that were revealed during the trial – information not included in the play. After leaving the Air Force, Reality had become a translator for the National Security Agency. In May 2017, according to the prosecution, she printed a report from her computer that detailed a Russian intelligence service’s hacking attacks into various voting components of the 2016 presidential election. She later revealed that she smuggled that report out of Pluribus International, the intelligence contractor for whom she was working, and sent it to an online news outlet called The Intercept. Reality was arrested in June 2017 and held for more than a year, while the prosecution built its case. She pled guilty in June 2018 to one felony count of unauthorized transmission of national defensive information, and sending a classified report about Russian interference in the 2016 election. She was the first person to be sentenced under the Espionage Act since Donald Trump took office as president. Her five-year sentence was the longest ever imposed in federal court for an unauthorized release of government information to the media.
Satter, who conceived and directed the play, made effective use of the empty stage (by designer Parker Lutz) with two platforms on either side. Thomas Dunn’s lighting – sometimes realistic, sometimes not – keeps us on edge, just as Reality must have felt. The result is a surreal effect, reminiscent of Kafka, evoking the climate of intimidation and fear of 1984, personifying the “banality of evil” (Hannah Arendt’s phrase pertaining to the Nazi Adolph Eichmann).
Tina Satter is the founder and artistic director of Half Straddle Theater Company. Like Victoria Brittain (Guantanamo) and Anna Deavere Smith (Fires in the Mirror, Twilight Los Angeles, Notes from the Field), Satter effectively chooses the form of documentary theatre, letting the real words deliver the message.
Ultimately, the play suggests a moral ambiguity that appears to be unresolved. Yes, Reality Winner technically did commit a crime. But what about her treatment (extracting a confession through innuendo and intimidation, without reading her rights)? Emily Davis’s moving performance as a young, naive professional who admitted making a mistake is deeply human – she even elicits the empathy of Garrick, her chief interrogator. So what about her harsh maximum sentence? Above all, what about the climate of intimidation in which the play – and the event – are set?
In conclusion, yes, Reality Winner blew the whistle on the US Government, but it’s never made clear who blew the whistle on Reality Winner. You’re left with the indelible feeling that Big Brother really is watching you.
Is This A Room, a documentary drama conceived and directed by Tina Satter, on Broadway at the Lyceum Theater – thru January 15, 2022
Photos: Chad Batka