“Is This A Room” stages the verbatim transcript of the FBI interrogation of a 25-year-old former Air Force linguist with the improbable name of Reality Winner, who was eventually sentenced to more than five years in prison for leaking to the press an intelligence report about Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections. She was “the first person to be sentenced under the Espionage Act since President Trump took office,” according to a news article in the New York Times in August, 2018. “Prosecutors said her sentence was the longest ever imposed in federal court for an unauthorized release of government information to the media.” In light of recent events involving whistleblowers, Winner’s case seems all the more stupefying.
The interrogation is undeniably fascinating in many ways — a sort of psychological thriller even though we more or less know how it turns out, it presents a revelatory glimpse at FBI investigative techniques, and even features some surreal moments of humor. But all of this reads better than it plays.
Although 11 agents reportedly descended unannounced on Winner’s home on June 3, 2017 in Augusta, Georgia, the transcript of the visit only names two of them, Special Agents Justin G. Garrick (portrayed on stage at the Vineyard by Pete Simpson) and R. Wallace Taylor (TL Thompson.) A third agent, listed in the transcript and the program as Unknown Male, is portrayed by Becca Blackwell. From the get-go the two named agents are personable and informal. And Winner (Emily Davis) is like the friendly girl next door, who has a fat cat named Queen Latifah that she’s put on her lease, and has a rescue dog named Nicky that doesn’t like men
“I have no idea,” Winner replies.
“Okay. This is about, uh, possible mishandling of classified information”
“Oh my goodness. Okay.”
For much of the time, the agents trade casual anecdotes with Winner about pets and phones and exercise, making sure that not just Winner but also her dog and cat are comfortable. It’s only in the last quarter of the transcript — the last 20 minutes of the 75-minute play — that they get down to business. And even then, they act understanding.
“1 don’t think we’re coming in here to say you’re some big bad mastermind…”
We learn little about her motivation for doing what she did — she tells the agents she hated having to listen to Fox News at her place of employment; at another point she says “Why do I have this job if l’m just going to sit back and be helpless?” We don’t even learn from the play what the documents were about; those details are redacted in the transcript, and thus left out of the play.
But if there’s nothing about the larger issue of Russian interference in the election, nor even much insight into what it takes to be a whistleblower, there are many little moments to relish, mostly for their oddness.
“Are there any weapons in the car, in the house?” Agent Taylor asks.
“In the house, yes,” Winner replies.
“What do you have?”
“I have an AR-15.”
“Is it pink?”
Winner laughs. “.How’d you know?”
(Like much else in the play, that goes unexplained.)
It is readily apparent why downtown theater artist Tina Satter might be attracted to the transcript. It’s an important case, especially now, and she deserves praise for keeping attention on it. Yet, I have to admit my attention flagged. The minimal staging, low-key acting, and sometimes barely audible delivery made “Is This A Room” more effort than reward for me, compared to simply reading the transcript, which is online .It’s certainly worth reading.
Is This A Room
Conceived and Directed by Tina Satter
Scenic design by Parker Lutz, costume design by Enver
Chakartash, lighting design by Thomas Dunn, sound design
by Lee Kinney and Sanae Yamada
Cast: Becca Blackwell, Emily Davis, Pete Simpson, TL Thompson
Running time: 70 minutes no intermission
Tickets: $45 – $100
Is This A Room is on stage through November 10, 2019