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Montpellier, France
Writer, actor, artist, teacher, exploring the world and its levels in fiction, poetry, memoir, photography, fine arts.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

"Downstairs" at ACT Theater - a chilling battle for love, memory, and truth

Theresa Rebeck's “Downstairs,” a co-production of ACTLAb and Theatre 22 directed by Julie Beckman, dives bravely into emotion and experience, finding both redemption and damnation. As the play opens, Teddy, played by Brandon Ryan as a vulnerable, manic anti-hero, putters in a basement room in the home of his sister Irene (Christine Marie Brown) and brother-in-law Gerry (John Q. Smith.) Irene's attempts to engage with Teddy trigger unfolding layers of fear and denial as brother and sister probe, parry, and persist in uncovering each other’s secrets, sharing their truths, gradually regaining tarnished but authentic trust in one another.

Literally above their heads prowls something very dark – a demon, as Teddy puts it: Irene’s husband Gerry, whose poisonous inner core is soon revealed. As the two siblings circle one another in a dance of alternating denial and revelation, Gerry’s weighty, toxic presence threatens their cautious rapprochement.

The script by Theresa Rebeck was submitted in 2016 to ACT Construction Zone’s new play development project, and ultimately chosen for a full production. Like the scene break intermezzos that bounce around a keyboard in weirdly unhinged arpeggios, the dialogue and characters seem desultory at times. Yet sudden revelations emerge from smokescreens of accusation, evasion and manipulation. Truths are uttered, clarity springs forth. The script's threads of metaphor and plot interweave and form patterns of meaning: who owns the house? Who decides what is true? Where’s the money? Who has value? What remains of the past? What is remembered and what forgot? What matters?
Christine Marie Brown and Brandon Ryan; photo: MR Toomey Photography
The cast is uniformly riveting. Christine Marie Brown seems a meek soul, cowed by her hateful husband (one is tempted to leap to the stage and hit the man), but under Teddy’s questioning and Gerry's menacing she reveals layers of strength, pride, regret, and determination. Sharp acting choices capture the anguish of a person trapped in an emotionally and physically abusive relationship: the downcast eyes, submissive stance, wary feints for a trace of personal power. Her conflicted love for her troubled brother and fear of her hate-filled husband ring painfully true.

The same can be said for Brandon Ryan, whose talent for creating characters of intricate and uncanny precision seems boundless. Teddy is a slovenly mess, perhaps verging on psychosis, hiding secrets about his life and spinning long tales of persecution. Yet his underlying lucidity bursts out: if anyone has a grip on the real, it seems, it’s the madman so close to the edge of sanity that he alone can call out truth. It’s an old trope told here in very new clothes. 

In a gripping stand-off with Gerry, Teddy finally utters the words that strike fear into Gerry’s malevolent soul: “You’ve been seen.” It's an effective antidote to the poison that Gerry spreads: “You don’t exist.” Once this blow is struck, the revolution begins.
Christine Marie Brown and John Q. Smith; Photo: MR Toomey Photography

Moments in the second act veer toward melodrama but are restrained by Julie Beckman’s skilled direction and a terrifyingly contained performance by John Q. Smith. The monster he portrays is not beyond what anyone in the audience may have experienced or imagined: an utterly self-centered autocrat with the power to intimidate those around him and shape reality to fit his own narrative. His performance, too, is spellbinding, and despite the extremity of his evil, one recognizes its truth and knows the type. 

The talented cast handles challenging language with virtuosity. Words spill out, racing and overlapping; silences leap out like shadow monsters; words wound, deceive, overpower, and console. Innocuous phrases take on stunning power: "He's fine!" -- "You've been seen" -- "You're not real." To some degree, it's a play about words: their surfaces and their subtexts; their power to define or obscure reality, create or thwart community; to kill or to care. 

"Downstairs" is a play for our time, when facing down demons and holding onto simple truths may be our only path toward imperfect but necessary salvation. It's an experience not to be lightly undergone or easily forgotten.

ACTLab & Theatre22 present

by Theresa Rebeck

Directed by Julie Beckman

The Bullitt Cabaret at ACT Theater

June 14 - July 9, 2017

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