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Burning Coal Theatre Company has moved to the Warehouse District (again) to present its latest production. This time, the Contemporary Art Museum (CAM Raleigh) is hosting Burning Coal's US premiere of English playwright Clare Bayley's Blue Sky, which depicts an atrocity with worldwide implications that originated in North Carolina. For this endeavor, CAM Raleigh has transformed one of its galleries into a soundstage, complete with raked seating and a massive collection of light and sound equipment.
Blue Sky takes place in a small town in England, but it examines an actual event that happened during the height of the war in Afghanistan. Using a small cast of only four, Bayley uses the journalism skills of her main character to ferret out an international scandal. Armed only with the tail number of an airplane, Jane (Shannon Malone), an investigative reporter, enlists the help of her old friend Ray (John Allore) to track down an undercover CIA operation. Jane pops back into Ray's life after a long hiatus; they were in high school together. She is convinced that the plane in question is ferrying prisoners from the US to Jordan for interrogation purposes, but she has no proof. Jane asks Ray, whose passion is airplanes, how one goes about tracking a plane with only the tail ID. Ray shows her that it is actually very simple if you know where to look.
Ray brings Jane home, where she meets Ana (Mya Ison), his teenage daughter. Ana and her boyfriend Sam are activists engaged in the Stop the Iraq War campaign, and run a blog to this effort. Jane is skeptical of the entire blog thing, but impressed by the passion Ana displays in defending her digital platform.
Jane's investigations connect the plane to Fort Bragg. The company that owns the plane originated in Wayne County. Whatever clandestine antics are being done with this plane, they began in North Carolina.
Next, Jane visits Mina (Rimsha Afzal), a woman whose husband disappeared without a trace a year-and-a-half ago. Mina is convinced he ran off with another woman, but Jane believes he is the prisoner that is being flown around the world for interrogation purposes — that he is a victim of the CIA.
Jane pursues her story with dogged passion, finally convincing those around her that she is "onto something." But while Ray and Mina were more apprehensive at first, Ana cannot believe that Jane would "sit" on such a thing for the sake of her story; Ana wants the atrocity shouted from the rooftops!
Blue Sky is mounted on a blank stage that houses a number of different locales: Ray's home, a local airport, Jane's office, and the home of the only other character in the work, Mina (Rimsha Afzal). Each locale has its own set, deftly set up and changed by a crew of six, who quickly and quietly set up each scene in record fashion, so that the characters can walk from one to the next seamlessly. It is a dance that is enjoyable to watch. Designed by Elizabeth Newton, each scene has exactly what it needs and no more; yet no scene feels incomplete. Overshadowing each changing scene is a monstrous sound design of planes flying closely overhead, which lends an atmosphere of tension to the play. In several scenes at the airport, the planes seem so obvious, yet this covert action takes place daily and nobody notices! Patrick Calhoun has had the task of designing and staging this overbearing sound montage.
All four actors delivered a compact and tightly controlled performance, but Allore and Malone especially worked this play well together. There was a palpable tension between the two that was part sexual and part what-the-devil-are-you-doing? The two seemed to clash at every meeting which made the tension in the play that much more accessible. The fight Malone brought to her role is part and parcel of the play; her character must fight with everyone to get at the truth.
Blue Sky champions the individual and is founded on the ideal that one person can make a real difference. The work underscores the maxim that all that is required for evil to succeed is that good men do nothing. Burning Coal and CAM Raleigh have joined their talents to bring this important, consequential play to downtown Raleigh, in the midst of a thriving nightlife. Come see Blue Sky; you'll be talking about it for days afterward.
Blue Sky continues through Sunday, February 14. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.