Tuesday, November 6, 2012
Theater review: Murder play Down the Road isn’t for the squeamish
You won’t leave this play with happy feelings.
Humans have always had a fascination for the macabre. Whether gawking at accidents or watching a grisly murder trial, we find conflict more interesting than happy stories. It’s not a new phenomenon.
Time was virtually suspended when Charles Lindberg’s baby was kidnapped and more recently, people clamored to watch the execution of Timothy McVeigh on TV after the Oklahoma City bombing. Crime stories are salacious fodder for the public. Consider the history of Bonnie and Clyde, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, and the ever-present fascination with Charles Manson. It comes as no surprise that novels, films, and plays about criminals are usually the most popular forms of entertainment.
Lee Blessing wrote Down the Road in 1991 about a serial killer’s need to tell his story and about the people writing that story. It’s not a condemnation of the idea of crime stories, rather it’s a question. What are we doing when we demand them? Blessing, who also wrote A Walk in the Woods, often deals with psychologically-charged subjects. His plays ask questions we wonder about but seldom pursue.
Jason Leyva (L.I.P. Service) and Angel Davis (TumorBoy Productions) present Down the Road at the Valley View Center Gallery. Bill Reach murders 19 women, by his recollection, and is locked away for life. Dan and Iris Henniman spend a month with Bill to capture his story and find themselves questioning their journalistic ethics and their motivations for writing Reach’s story. Is this about exposing truth? Are they giving him a salacious platform? They know it feeds the ravenous curiosity of society but they need the work as writers. They do want to write why he killed. He only wants to say how.
Down the Road uses a sparse motel bedroom and a hint of a jail cell on the same stage. Leyva built the set to suggest locations as the action moves alternately between cell and motel. At first separated by space, Leyva illuminates the active area to help us know who’s in the active scene, but in time the spaces merge so all characters move between jail and motel across the floor, as if to suggest they’re free to break through walls. It takes an adjustment to realize Reach is psychologically in the motel with them, always in their minds. And this pushes their marriage to the brink.
The ambiguity in Down the Road requires careful staging and Director Angel Davis does a good job keeping us focused on the scene and the text. Davis, as costumer, puts Reach in an orange prison jump suit and the Hennimans in casual business clothing. As sound designer, she uses a nearly unrecognizable sound track, yet it’s precise in terms of its effect on mood.
The structure of the play challenges actors too. As each begins the story in the isolation of their “home” space, their relationships begin to merge as the space merges. Subtext is palpable but seldom clear so the actors must make their feelings known to help us understand their real meanings. These actors know where they are physically and mentally. They sound like people under extreme stress and show emotions we all can identify with.
Dan Henniman is a newcomer to crime writing. Brad Allen portrays Dan as a man who gives way to his wife, the more experienced writer, while also wanting to protect her from the monster. She is, after all, a mother. Iris Henniman knows the ropes of the crime genre. Natalie Berry makes Iris a woman who accepts her husband’s need to protect her but also stays certain of her ability to deal with hardened criminals. Both actors allow their characters to feel an excitement about being newly expectant parents while also struggling with the psychological intrusion by Reach and the threat to their marriage.
Bill Reach is a monster. Leyva creates his horrible character with his eyes, constant grin, and the physical tics of a disturbed man. He does not make Reach “crazy” but rather makes him normal. That makes him scarier. Leyva is strong when he’s sharing his how details, annoyed and angry when he’s challenged with why questions, and slyly manipulating when he has a chance to threaten the Hennimans. He is onstage and in hand-cuffs during the entire play, reacting to the Hennimans’ incessant questions, even when they’re alone in their motel.
These actors are polished in these roles. They’re tight together; able to interrupt each other dramatically and find moments of awkward silence. There are many memorable sequences and outstanding moments. I think one has to be Leyva’s performance. It is for me a tour de force. Down the Road could be a top notch film and Leyva could easily play this role on Criminal Minds.
You won’t leave this play with happy feelings. You will leave with questions. Artistic or journalistic integrity versus the public’s right to know is a messy question with no clear answer.
This is a production for the strong-of-heart. If you get squeamish hearing details about young girls being murdered, probably better go watch the new DreamWorks movie. But this play is not about a killer’s raving lunacy. Rather it’s about how we react when we see stories like this in real life. We must question our own behavior. In this, Down the Road has a powerful message. It’s a message for all.
Pegasus News Content partner - John Garcia's The Column
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