Is This a Room Dramatizes the Interrogation of NSA Leaker Reality Winner
Tina Satter's new play exposes the weight of body language in exercises of power.
If the FBI comes to your house, don't let them snoop around until they show you a warrant —and for God's sake, don't talk to them until you have a lawyer present. That is the most useful lesson from director Tina Satter's Is This a Room, now playing at Vineyard Theatre. But this white-knuckle thriller based on true recent events contains more complicated observations about fear, intimidation, and how power mostly exerts itself in silence.
Satter uses as her script the verbatim transcript of the recording FBI agents Justin Garrick (Pete Simpson) and R. Wallace Taylor (T.L. Thompson) took the afternoon of June 3, 2017, shortly before the FBI arrested NSA contractor Reality Winner (Emily Davis). Winner was an Air Force veteran and specialist in Farsi, Dari, and Pashto. After leaving the military, she took a job as a translator with Pluribus, an organization that contracts with the NSA. Through her top-secret security clearance, she was able to access classified documents at work, including one that was leaked to online news source The Intercept revealing attempts by Russian intelligence to directly interfere with polling places during the 2016 election. In 2018, Winner pleaded guilty to leaking the document and was sentenced to five years, three months in federal prison — the longest term ever to be given to someone for releasing government information to the media.
Winner's case raises unsettling questions about how the security state fits into our republic: Why is so much information gathered with our tax dollars withheld from us? Are leakers like Winner American patriots or threats to national security? Is it right that worker bees like Winner languish in prison while well-lawyered national security threats like Michael Flynn and Rudy Giuliani walk free? Is This a Room deals with none of these questions, but it does grippingly dramatize the moment when the cudgel of the state knocked down Reality Winner's door.
From the moment agents approach her, Winner knows she's in trouble. Small talk meant to keep the situation casual (but breathlessly delivered by all cast members) only seems to make things more awkward. Satter reads a level of danger hidden beneath the anodyne chitchat of the transcript, and she brings that to her nerve-racking staging. The agents loom around her, invade her personal space, and breathe down her neck. Simpson and Thompson enact a classic good cop-bad cop routine, which is rendered no less effective for its transparency. The presence of an unnamed third male (Becca Blackwell) makes it clear that Winner is completely outnumbered.
All of this seems designed to undermine the government's narrative that Winner's confession (delivered without counsel and before any Miranda rights were read) was given freely. While the agents repeatedly state that this conversation is "voluntary," their menacing body language tells an entirely different story. Most damning is the presence of Winner's cat and dog, adorably fashioned by puppet designer Amanda Villalobos. Based on the vaguely threatening way Blackwell handles them alone, we understand that there will be consequences if Winner doesn't comply.
Davis plays Winner like she has just been caught with her hand in the cookie jar. Her childlike voice betrays guilt and fear from the earliest moments, and it only gets worse from there until she is standing with her hands over her crotch and her eyes downcast, like a little girl who has just wet herself. It's an interpretation of this Air Force veteran and powerlifter who regularly worked out within the testosterone-soaked walls of a CrossFit gym that I found hard to swallow. Did Reality Winner really crumple so completely?
While I intellectually bristled at Satter and Davis's infantilizing interpretation of Winner, that was only after I left the theater, and after I stopped feeling the real anxiety that Is This a Room conjures: Satter's powerful blocking comes into sharp relief on Parker Lutz's unadorned platform set. The audience is seated in traverse, with the bulk of us staring at a singular line of brave souls seated opposite. Enver Chakartash faithfully re-creates the actual outfit Winner was wearing the day of her arrest, as captured by this snapshot. It leaves her exposed and vulnerable in the face of the handguns and (in Blackwell's case) body armor worn by the agents.
Lee Kinney and Sanae Yamada's aggressive sound design introduces disorienting alien noises to the theater, while Yamada's original music maintains an air of tension. Lighting designer Thomas Dunn has developed a clear convention for the redacted parts of the transcript: A magenta pulse for single words, a short blackout for full sentences. We are left briefly to contemplate in the dark how there are still aspects of this story that our government seeks to hide from us.
All of this created a feeling of anxiety that I've rarely encountered since I was a child being called on the carpet by some adult. Perhaps we are trained from an early age to revert to this red-eared state: From the all-seeing eye of Santa to the awesome surveillance apparatus of the NSA, our culture seems designed to infantilize us before authority. Through sharp design and gripping performances, Satter shows how even the strongest of us become weeping children in the face of the awesome power of the federal government. Does that sound like the land of the free to you?