Bent over in pain, Roan (Lauren Hayes) hugs a pillow close to her stomach. She tells her wife Nat (Jeunée Simon) that the tomatoes and mushrooms from dinner didn’t agree with her. Nat’s listening and, at the same time, not listening to Roan, the way that any preoccupied spouse does when she’s been in a relationship with the same person for a very long time. Nat isn’t ignoring Roan but she’s wrapped up in one of her legal cases. She’s representing a transgender client who’s experienced discrimination in the workplace. Before she leaves the room to make some follow-up phone calls, Nat does suggest that Roan postpone her business trip the following morning. But in that moment, Roan just wants Nat to sit by her side. She’s not only looking for comfort and solace in the arms of the woman she loves. Roan wants Nat’s undivided attention before she leaves the country.
This opening scene in Christina Gorman’s Roan @ The Gates establishes more than one aspect of the couple’s dynamic. Nat does come back to hold Roan in her arms but she can’t get her to reveal where she’s travelling for her job. Roan’s an analyst at the National Security Agency (NSA). Withholding information from her wife is a regular occurrence. Because she can’t ever talk about the specifics of her daily life without compromising her security clearance, Nat doesn’t push Roan for details but both are aware that this creates a tension between them. Is Nat’s busyness a conscious or unconscious response to Roan’s furtive replies? They appear to be affectionate partners at home and engaged in professions that align with their high moral principles. That’s why it comes as such a shock to Nat when Roan disappears the next day.
Roan’s stomachache had nothing to do with food poisoning. She was in agony on the couch because she’d made the decision to become a whistle blower. Without Nat’s knowledge, she’d been planning a trip abroad for months to meet a journalist in Hong Kong. Gorman expands the narrative in the second scene so that Nat and the audience learn what Roan actually does at the NSA. She works in cybersecurity, developing code that monitors the digital lives of American citizens. At first, she was told that only a certain section of the population would be tracked and that seemed reasonable to her. But she discovered that, in fact, absolutely no one’s data was exempt from being collected. Roan felt personally responsible for having developed the software and made up her mind to let the public know.
Roan @ The Gates is billed as a political thriller. And while there are echoes of Edward Snowden’s case and shades of Julian Assange’s, the play is most effective when Gorman focuses on the fallout from Roan’s decision to leave her country and her wife. After her meeting in Hong Kong, she lands in Moscow. The Russians have yet to offer her asylum but they’re not abandoning her either. After doing some digging around, Nat flies to Russia and the couple temporarily reunites in a cramped room at the airport. They’ve landed in a symbolic limbo together. Freed from the constraints of her NSA work, Roan can finally be honest with Nat. When it becomes clear that she’d been planning to leave for months, Nat’s the one who feels sick to her stomach. How could Roan have slept by her side, night after night, knowing that one day soon she’d be gone?
The set includes only one lonely couch at the far end of the stage. But even with this minimalist approach, the actors — helped along with some clever lighting by Gary Graves — conjure the despair of being separated from a loved one. When they speak to each other online or they’re texting, the lights fade to black but Nat and Roan each appear in their own discrete spotlight. After Nat returns home and the weeks start to pass by, Roan’s absence looks and feels more and more like a betrayal. Her personal sacrifice may have been good for democracy but that also means she may never be coming back home.
Roan @ The Gates, through Aug. 18, at Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Ave., Berkeley, $22-$38; 510-558-1381 or centralworks.org