60 Minutes: "Is This a Room: Reality Winner Verbatim Transcription" is a terse presentation on how one hour can upend a life
Is This a Room: Reality Winner Verbatim Transcription looks behind the headlines and the newspaper articles of the real case of Reality Winner, a young woman currently serving a lengthy prison sentence for the unauthorized release of classified documents. She had violated the Espionage Act, which dates back to 1917.
Presented as part of UMS's No Safety Net 2.0 theater festival, this roughly one-hour long show highlights a single moment in Winner’s life, her interview with the FBI that ultimately resulted in her arrest. The stage is almost empty of props, and the audience is focused entirely on the four performers, their dialogue, delivery, and use of personal space. At times, the all-male agents crowd Winner, the only woman present at the time of her interview, giving an appropriate feeling of claustrophobia. At one point, the actors’ speech seems to be slowed down or sped up, perhaps giving insight into Winner’s emotional state at that moment.
The dialogue itself comes from, as the title of the piece says, a verbatim transcription of the recording of the interview. It includes coughs, stumbling over words, people talking over each other, and random unrelated phrases (such as “is this a room”) while the agents both converse with Winner and search her home.
For me, the inclusion of Winner’s frightened cat and dog, whom the audience hears barking off stage throughout, added to the emotion. At one point, one of the actors portraying an “Unknown Male” agent (played by Becca Blackwell) carries a large, fairly real-looking, plush dog across the stage, shaking the animal to convey her fear, as they progress, while Winner looks on nervously. The dog is being taken to the backyard for her own as well as the agents’ safety. At a later point, the same agent carries out a plush cat, which is also made to nervously twitch.
The people -- I hesitate to say "characters" because they are real people -- in the play do not have the benefit of knowing the outcome of this interaction as we, the audience, do. Emily Davis, who portrays Winner, shows us a smart, capable, but vulnerable young woman who is more afraid for her animals’ safety than her own. She wears cutoff jean shorts and yellow Converse Chuck Taylors.
Special agents Garrick and Taylor, portrayed by Pete Simpson and TL Thompson, respectively, don’t know yet that this is an isolated incident in Winner’s otherwise stellar career. All these agents see is a person who they think took and released classified documents, and who recently took a solo weekend trip to Belize. Winner tells them that there are weapons in the house, what they are, and where to find them, but can they trust her? Could she be lying? Could something more dangerous be hidden in the home?
Predictably, the transcript does have some redacted lines, which are handled by the stage momentarily going dark accompanied by a sound that, to me, was like hearing distant bombs going off. Winner was awarded the Air Force Commendation Medal for aiding in drone operations that led to hundreds being killed or captured, so I took those moments as reminders of her service and a ramping up of the tension on stage.
Who knew one hour of a person’s life could mean so much?
Crysta Coburn is a desk clerk with the Ann Arbor District Library, freelance writer, editor, and author.
"Is This a Room: Reality Winner Verbatim Transcription" continues through February 2 at the Arthur Miller Theatre. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit ums.org.