Downstairs, by Theresa Rebeck. Directed by Adrienne Campbell-Holt. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Tyne Daly as Irene; Tim Daly as Teddy in Theresa Rebeck's "Downstairs"; photo: Gerry Goodman
"You're fighting for the right to just quit!"
John Procaccino, Tyne Daly, Tim Daly; photo: Gerry Goodman
Theatre, Opera, Art Song - three performance arenas in which great creators have had new works conceived for, offered to and played by specific great stars. It doesn't happen all that often anymore, but at the Dorset Theatre Festival, a world premiere play by Theresa Rebeck has been written for Tim and Tyne Daly, brother and sister, children of John Daly, first magnitude stars, playing siblings, acting together for the very first time. Three cheers for a historic condition, a sensation that thrills audiences as the word "quirk" takes on new meanings. Oh, by the way, the play is among Rebeck's best and the production deserves a long life after its short initial, sold-out run. Someone, please, come and get this package and present it where thousands can experience it.
This is not a light comedy, though there are laughs here. This is not a melodrama, though the chilling moments might lead you to think it so. This is not a tragedy, not farce, not an easily defined piece of theater. This is a play in which the mind is engaged for one hour and fifty minutes and the ending leaves you poised, ready for more, hoping for the best, anticipating the worst. It is an emotional journey through the process of becoming human at best, even when being animal at its worst.
Teddy, uninvited, has moved into the basement of the home shared by his sister Irene and her husband Gerry. He feels a proprietory right to be there as the place was purchased with money he feels should have been left to him by their mother. He adores Irene, likening her to an angel. She adores him, but fears for him, for his sanity, for his future; she wants him to leave. Her life has been upset, its very delicate balance with her clearly psychotic husband stands on the brink of danger. Though Teddy sees and understands the level of dread caused by his presence, he is adamant about his belonging in this downstairs hole of a room. This is the setting, the circumstance of this play.
But there is much more going on than meets the eye. No one in this play is completely healthy, not mentally, not physically. We feel almost from the moment the play begins that Irene, or Teddy, could have a mental collapse at any minute. Her husband has the edge at first view; he seems solid and stolid, but every person has secrets that must not be revealed. As the play progresses and those private matters become acknowledged every sentence alters our understanding of who and what and even why these people are who they are. Chekhov move over, Rebeck is here.
Tyne Daly is superb. That's the only word to encompass her achievement in this role. She is very compelling and always keeps her brain as visible as her body. Her face tells us she is thinking, her voice, girlish and delicate, tells us how she interprets her situation from a childlike view; her body provides a new sense of the tentative. Like the heroines of great stage thrillers, Tyne Daly's Irene faces the uncertainty of violence with the potential violence of her own making. When she laughs, as she finally does, it is a sardonic laughter, a capturing laughter, the joy of a conqueror who has found a new world to acquire.
Rebeck has made this character a symbolic one who is still a personal, reality star. The Real Housewife of Dorset, Vermont. Or wherever this play is set. Irene is a real person, it would seem, and we have stumbled through a weather door into a space where she exists only for the use and abuse by others. We are premitted to meet and know the plight of this child-woman who has no children of her own and needs to extend a loving hand to someone dear to her. She is less to be pitied than cozened, more to be cradled than partnered. At the end of the play Tyne Daly and Theresa Rebeck leave us with mounting doubt about Irene's sanity and her sincerity. If there is a chill in the air at the end of the play it is centered in her sweetness, her ability to deceive. She is like the leading lady in a classic Greek tragedy, but so much more American, so much more real.
Her husband, Gerry, is played with equal enormity by John Procaccino. While Tyne Daly is rarely off-stage, Procaccino is only on-stage twice (and can be heard, Upstairs, at another time). His first appearance announces his duplicity with a brilliantly played scene of human fictions. Gerry is a man who must confuse an enemy, lull an enemy, strike an enemy in order to achieve any amount of personal success. In Irene's baby brother he faces the perfect foil. He comes close to achieving his goal, loses his moment and recovers to fight another day. Which he does, noisily. In his final moments in this basement haven he and Irene finally confront one another with passions flaring. Procaccino brings an uncanny horror into this interplay and, again, the reality of the confrontation is chilling. This actor makes a perfect foil for Tyne Daly's Irene. If anyone seeing this believes that the play was written for him, they would be able to make an excellent point of it. He is the perfect actor for this perfect role.
Tyne Daly and John Procaccino; photo: Gerry Goodman
Tim and Tyne Daly; photo: provided
As baby brother Teddy, baby brother Tim Daly is almost a romantic figure, a Parsifal whose innocence is anything but, whose motives are purely greedy and yet purely the opposite. No character in this play provides more confusion than Teddy. At one point in the play we witness his death only to discover that our perception may have been mislead or may have been something else, a presage of things to come and possibly soon. We don't know, and the playwright doesn't want us to know, who this man is and where he may be headed. Tim Daly does a remarkable job of building a character who remains aloof from analysis into a man who feels so familiar it is troubling. Getting home, standing in the half-light of midnight in a room shadowed and openly pooled in its lighting the sense of Teddy hangs in your personal air and you hesitate to go down the stairs to see if he has taken up residence in your own basement. Tim Daly's performance is that personal and that strong. Perhaps it is the result of siblings playing siblings but there is an ease between them that aches to be completed and yet holds back, holds us back as well, from ever fulfilling that moment of a hug where closeness is total, is defined. As good as Daly has always been, it is clear here that two Dalys are better than one.
Director Adrienne Campbell-Holt has obviously felt something for each of the three characters in this play for what comes out of their physical and verbal relationships has a constant depth reflecting each individual action and reaction. Her vision for this play is best shown in the tentative actions of Irene toward both of the men in her life. The director and actress have mutually expressed a looseness and ease dipped in a well of angst in this play. This is the sort of acting achievement that must be the result of a wedding of intent and content, the actress brilliantly playing the results of careful input. I would caution the actress, however, not to allow the director to invade her personal life as things might become too difficult, too heavy and too dangerous. What Campbell-Holt has drawn from every member of her company is an achievement non-pareil.
Likewise the set by Narelle Sissons is the perfect setting for this jewel of a play. Charles Schoonmaker's costumes reflect their wearers (characters, not actors) wonderfully well. Michael Giannitti's lighting design has impact and guides the eye to perfection. M.L. Dogg has done some wonders with his aural vision, adding both reality and filmic understanding of the play.
This world premiere moves every participant up a ladder wide-enough to hold them all to a new level of sophistication and a new point of interpreting life as we once knew it. There is clearly danger in innocence and at the same time innocence in danger. What Dorset Theatre Festival has on its hands is a guidepost to the future, though the road ahead may be larded with land-mines. As for audiences, this play is sold-out, so find a ticket, scalp a ticket, locate a patron, marry for a ticket. Just don't miss "Downstairs" under any circumstances.
Downstairs plays at the Dorset Theatre Festival, 104 Cheney Road, Dorset, VT through July 8. For information and tickets contact the box office at 802-867-2223 ext. 2, or go on line to dorsettheatrefestival.org.