When I saw Is This A Room in its original production in January 2019, the events it depicts were quite literally ripped from the headlines. Reality Winner, who received the longest sentence ever imposed by this country for the unauthorized release of classified information, had begun that sentence only a few months earlier. (I learned from a recent interview with creator and director Tina Satter that when she began working on the piece, Winner had not yet finalized her plea deal, and was trying to keep the transcript that forms the script of this play out of court because she was not given a Miranda warning, a detail that adds another layer to the already complicated ethical and artistic quandaries of documentary theater.)
Is This A Room is running now in rep on Broadway with another piece of documentary theater, Lucas Hnath’s Dana H, and the two are at opposite ends of the spectrum of content that comprises documentary theater, though both are the kind of intimate, intense shows that rarely make it to Broadway. Where Hnath had days of material (audiotapes) to edit and shape into a narrative, and the benefit of having direct access to the source of the material (his mother), Satter has a readymade: an object that arrived in its entirety, a contained story in a single document that takes little more than an hour to present end to end, word for word. On June 3, 2017, Reality Winner (Emily Davis), an Air Force veteran who is now working as a translator for an NSA contractor (she speaks Pasho, Dari, and Farsi), returns from grocery shopping to find the FBI at her Augusta, Georgia, house, with a search warrant for her home and car. They want to talk about “the possible mishandling of classified information.” It’s “completely voluntary.”
The transcript of the ensuing interview, conducted primarily by two agents, Garrick (Pete Simpson, willfully folksy) and Taylor (Will Cobbs, edgier and less predictable), forms the script of Satter’s play; the only liberty taken is to use a single performer (Becca Blackwell) for all the voices labeled “Unknown Male” in the transcript, which would have been a cadre of agents searching Reality’s home on the day itself. It starts to rapidly become clear, to Reality and to the audience, that the interrogation is almost perfunctory–the FBI knows what it’s looking for, they are pretty damn certain what Reality did, and they’re not overly interested in why. Most of the time, they’re talking about seemingly innocuous things, as if Agent Garrick is making obligatory stabs at playing “good cop” to Taylor’s more physically menacing but quieter presence: While Garrick chats about rescue dogs and CrossFit injuries, Taylor always seems to be just a little bit too far into Reality’s personal space. And as Reality becomes increasingly and uncomfortably aware, she’s outnumbered, outmaneuvered, and this “voluntary” interview is not going to end well.
Satter’s staging constantly masses the agents together–in a clump, in a line; a cluster of men working as a unit while Reality stands alone in opposition, a slight woman in yellow high-top sneakers. (Davis’s uncanny resemblance to Reality Winner is as unsettling as ever.) The show does lose some of its claustrophobic intimacy on a Broadway stage; the sense of the agents pinning Reality down is lessened when we’re watching on a proscenium stage rather than surrounding the action. But Reality’s sense of isolation comes through even more strongly in the larger space, and the starkness of Parker Lutz’s scenic design and Thomas Dunn’s lights add to the sense of danger.
The sound design, too, works well in this space–miking the voices in a slightly intentionally artificial way adds to the stylization and the abstraction of the performances. Having Unknown Male–Blackwell is a bundle of signifiers of masculine authority, with a cell phone in one hand and a walkie-talkie in the other; cargo pants; a mullet; opaque mirrored shades–miked also means that the muttered logistics of the search become a more omnipresent and more ominous backdrop. And the use of audio and light to signal redactions in the text still throws the world of the play off kilter every time it happens.
What is perhaps lost in menace is gained in absurdity: the surreal humor of the piece and Reality’s desire to assert her sense of self in the face of this interrogation come to the fore in Davis’s performance. Davis doesn’t hide the fact that Reality is scared, or that her brain is working a mile a minute, but this time I felt more cognizant of her strength, too: she’s a military veteran, a brilliant linguistic mind, in excellent physical condition. The details of her personality and her life feel like they get a little more weight, from her listing of the weapons she has stashed around the house to the fact that her pets all hate men to the grapefruit in the locker by her desk.
The weird eternity that was the Trump presidency, overlapped by the even weirder eternity of the pandemic (Reality, by the way, contracted COVID in federal prison in July 2020), has thoroughly warped my sense of time. Somehow the incredible recency of the events depicted in Room hit me even more strongly now, with the Trump presidency in the rear-view mirror (but Trump himself still of course a major presence) and Reality released to a transitional facility this June. At the same time, the whole narrative feels slightly more abstract, a Kafkaesque parable about justice and power as much as a snapshot of a very real time and place in America.
June 3, 2017, the date that the FBI met Reality in her driveway in Georgia and interrogated her, feels like yesterday, and also like eons in the past. Did we really ever not know about Russian interference in the 2016 election? Did we not know that the government keeps secrets from us? I’m not sure whether it’s a more damning statement about me, about American media, or about the hell we’ve all lived through these past two years that I remembered clearly the sense of menace and malice that wafts through the show; I remembered clearly the price that Reality paid for sending a single document to The Intercept–but I had to go back and look up exactly which thing she blew a whistle on. So many other threats to democracy have intervened since, I guess. If the redactions felt superfluous then, in a moment when we all knew that details they were obscuring, they lean toward making the piece more universal now. Reality’s question is about Russian interference in our elections, but it could be asked of so many things: “Why isn’t this out there? Why can’t this be public?”