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Wednesday, June 21, 2017

A Review — "Downstairs" at ACT Theatre is Riveting Drama

Photo provided by MR Toomey Photography
The Seattle premier of the play Downstairs, written by Theresa Rebeck and directed by Julie Beckman, features a cast of three who create an intense drama. Within the walls of The Bullitt Cabaret at ACT-A Contemporary Theatre, in Seattle, this play is set in a cluttered basement room. There, safety, danger, shelter, exposure, love, hate, fear, hope, and courage all share space far from the light of day. Not even the room's dark corners provide a place for the characters to hide. They must face painful truths about themselves and others before they can emerge as changed human beings, except for one. 

Producing Artistic Director Corey McDaniel founded Theatre22, which partnered with ACTLab to cooperatively produce this play. Downstairs has its roots in the ACT Construction Zone, a festival focused on new plays. From a field of 100 works solicited for the event, Downstairs was among four finalists presented as readings in the autumn of 2016 before being chosen as the one to be fully produced. 

Photo provided by MR Toomey Photography

Downstairs tells the story of a troubled and destructive marriage overlapping the relationship between adult siblings, a brother and sister scarred by their late mother's apparent mental illness and their father's early death. Caught in the middle is  Irene, both wife and sister, played by Christine Marie Brown. Brandon Ryan portrays her highly intelligent but sometimes semi-unintelligible brother, Teddy. Disheveled, unemployed and seemingly homeless, he justifies his extended "visit" and occupancy of Gerry and Irene's basement by claiming he is owed the favor. He feels cheated of his inheritance. According to Irene, however, when their mother's estate was being settled, he was too unstable to receive and handle his share. Teddy also hints at imminent plans, entrepreneurial opportunities he refuses to reveal. His presence, deeply resented by Gerry, changes the status quo of the marriage and becomes the catalyst for a crisis capable of destroying everything. 

Irene, at first, is rather cool toward her brother. Yet, in the contradictory and strange dance of their relationship, they each display frustration, annoyance, disagreement, nervous concern, and tender affection. None of this is ever boring. In fact, the play grows more interesting with each line. We realize Irene is nervous for both of them. The more she talks, the more we see her loneliness, low self-esteem, and isolation. She is trapped.

John Q. Smith plays the part of Irene's husband, Gerry, who does not actually appear until the second act. By the time he does, the siblings have already revealed enough about him to mix trepidation with the anticipation. Although Irene makes excuses for Gerry's behavior, she also lets slip to her brother how she has seen the monster within. Her lines included:"Something came out and looked at me. It showed its face." and "He says mean things, terrible things."

The basement room contains a sofa, a workbench above which Gerry's tools hang, a coffee pot, often handled and looked at, but seemingly never containing fresh coffee, a trunk on which sits a supposedly non-working computer (which will become signifiant), some shelving, and various pieces of clutter, such as cardboard boxes and an old lampshade. A curtain covers the doorway to a bathroom, and stairs lead up into the house. Within this environment, Teddy survives on cereal and food his sister prepares and brings to him. He never leaves until the traumatic day he must. 

Photo provided  by MR Toomey Photography

Blankets and afghans lie around on the sofa, floor, and elsewhere. When Irene ventures downstairs to talk to her brother, her handling of these props reveals her mental and emotional state. One minute she is testily tidying, folding them and placing them on the nearby shelves as an attempt to create order from the chaos of her existence. The next minute, she curls up on the sofa with one around her shoulders, seeking comfort. 

Likewise, the exchanges between the siblings can sound sensible or indicative of a mutual madness. Teddy is more obviously mentally ill, but sees certain truths clearly. Irene protects herself with extreme denial and tries to hide a festering anger. Her comments vacillate between near panic over her husband's growing and dangerous resentment to her rosy recollections of life with the mother she and Teddy view quite differently.

Members of the audience may, themselves, feel vulnerable on their ride through this gripping tale. Beware—it deals with abuse. Emotional abuse is built into the script. The threat of physical abuse hovers, ever present. For anyone who has experience either, it might hit too close to home. A disturbing reference to animal cruelty also occurs. As the tension builds, characters become emboldened and surprise us. This drama makes you aware of how a human being who never seemed the type could be pushed to the brink of violence. A few actions will literally startle you.

Photo provided by MR Toomey Photography
Only the best cast and creative team can make this play work. (Learn more about them here.) Brown's advanced skills enable her to navigate a complex role and sob so convincingly one truly feels her pain. She is a fearful "pleaser" with plenty of suppressed anger. Ryan, as Teddy, draws our empathy along with some suspicion. His rambling lines would not be easy to memorize or execute, but he has mastered them. Smith gave a stunning performance. One of the most chilling moments comes when Gerry finally appears on those stairs. Without saying a word, at first, Smith makes his character terribly threatening, his palpable malevolence coiled behind a thin wall of feigned civility, waiting to strike.

In response to a comment from Teddy, Gerry coldly says, "Trust me, you will know when things are not polite. I don't care what you think , and I don't care what she thinks."

Photo provided by MR Toomey Photography
Yes, this is a dark tale, but not entirely, or forever. If even offers small doses of humor. At the very heart of it, and as its motivation, lie hope and the potential for healing. A story, in order to be a story, must take characters on a journey, and this one does. Each will reveal inner weaknesses and strengths, for good or evil, as they follow the paths to their inevitable futures. If you prefer an evening of light entertainment, see something else. If you want to experience truly riveting theater, get your tickets now.

Note: Although these photos appear dark, the lighting on stage is much brighter.

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