Theater review by Adam Feldman
[Note: This is a review of Is This A Room at the Vineyard Theatre in 2019. Click here for information about the 2021 Broadway production of Is This a Room.]
Remember Reality Winner? A 25-year-old Air Force veteran working as a translator for the National Security Agency, Winner was arrested in 2017 for leaking a classified report about Russian interference in the previous year’s presidential election, a crime for which she is currently serving a five-year prison sentence. But you can be forgiven if all you recall about the case is its subject’s striking name: Given the chaos of today’s news cycles, Winner was just one snowflake in an avalanche. Tina Satter’s highly absorbing Is This A Room, which played briefly at the Kitchen this year and has now returned at the Vineyard, is based on the verbatim transcript of the FBI’s initial interview of Winner on June 3, 2017, at her home in Augusta, Georgia. Refocusing our attention on Winner’s case, if only for an hour, it asks us to pause and take a breath of cold air.
Satter’s staging presents the inquisition austerely but with a mounting sense of tragedy. With spectators seated on two sides of the minimalist-classical set, we watch as Winner (Emily Davis) is questioned by Agent Garrick (the excellent Pete Simpson) and Agent Taylor (TL Thompson); an unidentified third man (Becca Blackwell) is also present. It’s clear that they know more than they're letting on—and, in fact, more than what the transcript tells us, since parts of it have been censored. The production smartly balances vérité and stylization, offering its own interrogation of the event: The FBI agents regularly stand unsettlingly close to Winner; some sections of text are sped up, and others are given a mildly absurdist spin; the music (by Sanae Yamada) and sound design (by Yamada and Lee Kinney) help create a sense of unease; the redacted sections of the text are rendered as sudden puffs of darkness, like reverse flashbulbs going off. But Is This A Room has a movingly human presence at its core. Davis gives a performance of heart-wrenching rawness and lucidity; as you watch her dissolve from the inside, what emerges with force is a sympathetic and specific portrait of a young woman trying to do the right thing in a very wrong time. Satter doesn’t have to add very much. Reality is interesting enough.
Vineyard Theatre (Off Broadway). Conceived and directed by Tina Satter. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 5mins. No intermission.