“Roan @ the Gates” fails to get its point across convincingly

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Luna Stage production of
Luna Stage production of "Roan @ the Gates" with Aaliyah Habeeb as Nat and Mel House as Roan. Photo by Jody Christopherson.

Luna Stage’s first production of the year falls short

It hurts to say it, but Luna Stage’s first production of the year and their only world premiere this season, Christine Gorman’s Roan @ the Gates, is a disappointment. The play is touted as being a high-stakes adventure examining the risks of whistleblowing. Unfortunately, it delivers nothing that hasn’t already been discussed and debated in the wake of an era which has seen Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning’s actions and detailed the consequences.

Scene from the Luna Stage production of "Roan @ the Gates." Photo by Jody Christopherson.
Scene from the Luna Stage production of “Roan @ the Gates.” Photo by Jody Christopherson.

The play is described as taking place in the present. Roan (Mel House) is a data analyst for the NSA. Nat (Aaliyah Habeeb), her wife, is a high-powered civil rights attorney. Nat has grudgingly accepted not knowing certain details about Roan’s work, but one night Roan calls her from Russia — where she’s sought political asylum. The depth of Roan’s secretiveness and its sudden unexpected revelation puts Nat in a peril not of her own choice and leaves her feeling that her help is neither wanted nor needed.

Scene from the Luna Stage production of "Roan @ the Gates." Photo by Jody Christopherson.
Scene from the Luna Stage production of “Roan @ the Gates.” Photo by Jody Christopherson.

While this would make a basis for a solid, tension-filled play, that play is not presented here. If the play is set in the present, then Roan has learned almost nothing by the examples of Snowden and Manning. At the very least, she has failed to learn the value of having experienced legal counsel willing to work on her behalf while she feels she must live in exile. And despite her claims of having thought her actions through repeatedly, she has not taken into account the consequences of her actions on the woman upon whose support and understanding she depends. Nat faces daily questioning by the FBI and constant hounding by reporters, is put on suspension by her law firm, and is pulled off ongoing cases due to lack of trust from her clients.  Roan comes across as an unconvincing character, relying on emotional appeals and fantasy scenarios of their life together to keep her wife. Yet her explanations for what she’s done and why all boil down to her saying, in effect, “Trust me, I know what I’m doing” to a woman who feels betrayed and abandoned by the person she loved.

Scene from the Luna Stage production of "Roan @ the Gates." Photo by Jody Christopherson.
Scene from the Luna Stage production of “Roan @ the Gates.” Photo by Jody Christopherson.

Actresses Mel House and Aaliyah Habeeb are outstanding.

I place the blame for the shortcomings of this production on the playwright. Actresses Mel House and Aaliyah Habeeb are outstanding and deserved the standing ovation they got on opening night. Director Michelle Tattenbaum did first-class work in trying to give an equal balance to both characters’ side of the story. But playwright Christina Gorman needs to go back to the script, decide if it is truly the present day or a not-too-distant past before Snowden and Manning, and rewrite accordingly.

The starkly beautiful set is the work of twin brothers Christopher and Justin Swader, whose work here and at other New Jersey theatres has proven to be a solid contribution to many plays. Here they are aided by the lighting design of Marika Kent and Megan Culley’s sound design.

"Roan @ the Gates" with Mel House as Roan and Aaliyah Habeeb as Nat. Photo by Jody Christopherson.
“Roan @ the Gates” with Mel House as Roan and Aaliyah Habeeb as Nat. Photo by Jody Christopherson.

The play’s title is obscure until late in the play when an announcer’s voice describes Roan as a Trojan horse at the door of the NSA, brought inside under false pretenses to wreak havoc and work treason. The only false pretense about Roan @ the Gates is that it sheds light on the circumstances that might lead one to break official secrecy in the cause of a greater purpose. It does not, and because of that I cannot recommend seeing this play.

Roan @ the Gates is presented by Luna Stage in West Orange through February 24, 2019.  For tickets and information, visit LunaStage.org