by Theresa Rebeck
Directed by Julie Beckman
June 16th ~ July 9th
Presented In The Bullitt Cabaret at ACT
700 Union Street
Downstairs by prolific author Theresa Rebeck is a world premier, thought-provoking family drama presented by Theater 22 in conjunction with ACT’s new play festival Construction Zone.
Downstairs follows the relationship of estranged siblings Irene and Teddy. Teddy has recently taken up temporary lodging in Irene’s basement and is unwelcome by her oppressive husband Gerry.
Attempting to patch over the open wounds of Irene’s marriage, the siblings search for common experiences in their pasts- memories of their mother, favorite foods and the love they shared as children. These attempts to connect produce some of the most endearing moments in the show.
Brandon Ryan is unerringly genuine and heart-stoppingly engaging as Teddy, the wayward younger sibling living in his sister’s basement. He seems to be constantly ready to bolt and the amount of energy he exudes on stage is electric in the audience. We didn’t know whether to be afraid, sympathetic or to egg him on. He effectively held us emotionally hostage throughout the entire show and never once did he falter.
Christine Marie Brown portrays abused wife Irene with a quiet dignity at times and at others, she wheedles, goes above and beyond, mollycoddles and leans in just to hear one positive affirmation from her brother. She has long since learned that it will not come from her marriage. Brown is earnest and honest and her presence on stage was both reassuring and heartbreaking.
John Q. Smith is brutal in his attack on this role. Gerry’s first moment on stage is quiet and dangerous. I felt my panic rise as he stood on the stairs, simply watching and waiting for Teddy to notice him. It was like watching a predator stalk his prey. Simply by standing there, on the stairs, overlooking his domain, I was filled with terror. It is rare for an actor to enthrall and terrorize just by quietly standing, and he clasps this precious position of power steadily throughout the show. Gerry is an overbearing, abusive control freak intent on keeping the status quo- where he is the only one making any decisions – ie withholding job opportunities from Irene under the guise of being “traditional.” Teddy’s presence in Gerry’s house (which actually belongs to Irene) upsets the power balance and that is simply unacceptable.
Director Julie Beckman brilliantly culls together terror and humor and makes the best of a script that can be dark and overwhelming. She relies heavily on Rebeck’s excellent script and the integrity of her actors to keep the dark emotional show watchable and engaging. Her interpretation of the arcs and beats streamed smoothly together.
And shout out to stage designer Robin Macartney for one of the most excellent sets I have seen in a while. The half unfinished basement full of old odds and ends, blankets, a forgotten floral couch, shop sink, electrical conduits and a shop bathroom squeezed gingerly into such a small space is the perfect blend of realistic utilitarian and metaphorical oppression. Lacy and I had to see it up close after the show and took our time pointing out the details like total fan girls.
In a world that can rely heavily on flash and sparkle, T22 is unafraid of tackling complex material and presenting humanizing stories. We are truly lucky to have them amongst our artistic community.
*Be advised that some material in Theresa Rebeck’s Downstairs can be triggering and may potentially distress audience members.
by Jennifer Nöel Klouse