The premise of “Roan @ the Gates” is fantastic. Christina Gorman’s new play, self-described as “a political thriller,” is currently being performed in an intimate, 50-person theater at the Berkeley City Club, complete with all the finery of a Julia Morgan hotel. The story draws directly from the life of whistleblower Edward Snowden and drops it into the lives of two women in an 11-year marriage: Roan (Lauren Hayes), a National Security Agency data analyst, and Nat (Jeunée Simon), a civil rights attorney.
Gorman offers a fast-paced and exhilarating text, sustained by skillful rhetoric and a methodical plot. Actresses Simon and Hayes bring range and stamina to their characters, allowing their emotional arc to build unabated over the 70 minutes of stage time. Director M. Graham Smith steers the production with an innovative hand, transforming scenes that take place entirely over Skype into dramatic negotiations through lighting and body language that borders on dance choreography.
There are some areas where the production may have been strengthened, however. The writing, while conceptually tight, at times feels overwrought with political commitments. The narrative is engaging, but there are instances when it feels as if the audience is being given more information than it needs.
The first scene offers two monologues, both delivered by Simon. The first is a bit overdone and out of place, offering an overly expository account of Nat’s life as an attorney in a setting where her work should need no introduction. Nat and Roan are supposed to have been together for 11 years, and it seems unlikely that Nat would launch into a speech about her profession when her wife is lying on her lap, doubled over in pain from food poisoning. The entire scenario seems calculated and unlikely — more for the benefit of the audience than the characters. This starts things off on a shaky note, but then Gorman makes an interesting choice: giving Nat a second monologue in the same scene.
This time, Nat’s character is triumphant. Simon shines in her second delivery, narrating the story of how a car dealer tried to take financial advantage of Nat and her shouting atop a luxury car as revenge. She owns the stage, giving a vivid portrayal of a seasoned attorney. Simon’s impersonations of the car dealer are golden, eliciting the first real bursts of laughter.
But the remainder of the play, though artful, stops short of being fully convincing. There are moments when the material feels less like a drama and more like a lively research paper. Critical scenes are interrupted by tangents about the importance of privacy protection, the dangers of mass data collection and the plight of the whistleblower. These issues are pressing and timely, and very deserving of theatrical attention, but they are allowed to direct the flow of dialogue to the point that the narrative struggles to compete.
That being said, the overall scope of the production is deeply thought-provoking. The play’s title, “Roan @ the Gates,” turns out to be an allusion to the Trojan horse, positioning Roan as the false gift of the Greeks waiting to be brought inside the walls of the city. It is interesting that Gorman would align the titular character (a celebrated whistleblower) not with the embattled Trojans or the heroic Achilles, but with the false and destructive Greeks.
The ultimate intention behind this allusion may have been to highlight the cost that whistleblowers (and their loved ones) pay for their transparency. The end of the production finds Roan collapsed on the floor in a moss-green sweater, caught between her political convictions and the life with Nat that she has abandoned. This is no longer the whistleblower-hero archetype, but someone with a penchant for blowing up their own life.
“Roan @ the Gates” will be playing at the Berkeley City Club through Aug. 18.
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