The actress who stands up to Billy Petersen

Sexual AssaultCelebritiesSocial IssuesAbusive BehaviorHelen KellerCrime, Law and Justice

Mattie Hawkinson's soft voice takes on an edge as the actress tells me bluntly: "I did not want to be in a sexy rape play."

We're sitting backstage at the Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, where Hawkinson is starring in David Harrower's "Blackbird," a play that, she wants to make clear, is not some salacious take on sexual assault.

"There are so many plays written about this," she says. "And so few of them are good."

But "Blackbird" grabbed her attention from the moment she first read the script. In the 80-minute production, Hawkinson plays the part of Una, a 27-year-old woman who searches out and confronts the man who sexually abused her when she was 12 years old and he was 40. In the 15 years since, Una has been stuck, unable to move forward or back, tangled up in the memories and emotionally tethered to the man who hurt her. "It's really a play about aftermath, which is endlessly fascinating to me. How long does [the aftermath] go on? And how do you deal with the weight of that?"

Hawkinson isn't the only one fascinated by the dark, complex material. Demand for tickets has been so overwhelming that a surge of callers recently crashed the box office phone system; since then, tickets to performances -- which opened July 13 and run through Aug. 16 -- have sold out.

Much of that remarkable reaction is due to the red-headed, porcelain-skinned, fiercely intelligent Hawkinson, whose delivery has been described as "blistering," "surgically precise," "extraordinarily gutsy" and even "career-making."

Dressed in skinny jeans, a blue wraparound blouse and a necklace adorned with a delicate locket, Hawkinson sat in her small, windowless dressing room on a recent afternoon, taking swigs from a water bottle and talking about the appeal of the role. With a spray of freckles across her nose and a gray headband in her wavy hair, she looks younger than her 28 years, speaks so softly at times that her voice almost seems to tremble, but also possesses a steely confidence. "I don't care if people like me or like the character," she says, adding that she doesn't mind if people don't like the play at all. "It's not like my skin doesn't crawl when I hear some of those lines."

The topic of sexual abuse is hardly the stuff of feel-good entertainment. And the play has certainly made some viewers bristle. The theater's Victory Magazine, for example, described the relationship between Una and her abuser Ray as "a passionate affair," a description that raised eyebrows because it seemed to suggest mutual consent. How does Hawkinson describe what happened between Ray and Una?

"I think it's abuse," she says, not missing a beat. "I don't question that. I don't think the character does either."

In "Blackbird" -- British vernacular for jailbird -- we encounter Una as she is about to confront Ray in the dank and cluttered break room of his office. Fifteen years earlier, they had met at a backyard barbecue. She had a schoolgirl crush. He felt something that, he says, made him believe that he loved her. What followed was a three-month "relationship." Fast-forward to present day. Ray has served a three-year prison sentence for the abuse, changed his name and started a new life. Una, on the other hand, has been trying and failing to pick up the pieces of a shattered existence.

"What he did to her, in a way, it has always made her feel apart -- apart from her relationships, apart from her family," says Hawkinson. "Loneliness is a huge motif in this play; we hear about it over and over again. I tried to make that [loneliness] really clear to the audience. ... Because everyone knows what it's like to be lonely."

Born in Bellingham, Wash., Hawkinson grew up in community theater. Her mother had been an amateur actress, and Hawkinson caught the acting bug early. By the time she was 11, she was appearing in four to five shows a year and, at home, stuffing a pillow under her shirt and pretending to be Tevye from "Fiddler on the Roof." Later, while preparing to play Helen Keller in "The Miracle Worker," a preteen Hawkinson insisted on walking around her house wearing a blindfold.

After graduating from Northwestern University, she settled in Chicago, landing parts at top theaters, including Victory Gardens, Steppenwolf, Lookingglass and Chicago Shakespeare. But the parts were often quirky roles, in which she played children, teenagers or "the saucy maid." A lover of Shakespearean tragedies, she longed for something more, "something where I could delve deep and just really get into the psychology of the person."

Last fall, when she heard that Victory Gardens would stage a production of "Blackbird," she called Dennis Zacek, the theater's artistic director, with whom she had worked before. But Zacek was annoyed that Hawkinson -- who by then had moved to New York -- had backed out of a previous role. He remained standoffish on the phone. "I said, 'Yes, I'd be happy to see you,' " Zacek recalled. " 'But you have to audition. I'm not going to fly you in. It'll be on your dime.' "

Hawkinson bought a ticket, flew out and promptly landed the part. "She crushed the competition," said Zacek, noting happily that it took all of "five minutes" to decide to cast her. The key, Zacek said, was Hawkinson's fearlessness onstage, her knack for conveying both strength and vulnerability, and for being able to show audiences the "girl within the woman."

"It's amazing to me. I was acting at that age, but it was all emotion. I didn't have any skills," said William Petersen, the former leading man on "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," who was billed as the star in his role as Ray, but who has humbly yielded the spotlight to Hawkinson. "She has a lot of craft, and she's very skilled." More than that, he notes, "she really cares about this character. She believes in this woman and her story."

Portraying Una with dignity and strength was important to Hawkinson, who has friends who've lived through incidents of sexual abuse. "I do know people that this has happened to. Sadly, we all do," she said, citing reports that as many as 25 percent of women experienced abuse as children.

The impact of such a trauma can be as unpredictable as it is devastating. And every night, Hawkinson says, she sees something else in the character, some other nuance to explore. Up on the stage, she rages and weeps, bullies and pleads, collapses into a chair in one moment, and tosses that same chair across the room in another. "Some days the show is more emotional. Some days it's more intellectual. Some days it's louder, angrier," she says. The task of interpretation is never ending, but to Hawkinson that is a wonderful gift. "Una is incredibly complicated," she says. "I will never finish figuring her out."

cmastony@tribune.com

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