If you’re nourishing a secret dread of joyous holidays with dysfunctional relatives, take heart. The family on view in Actor’s Express’ new mystery/horror “Downstairs,” by Theresa Rebeck, will make your family look like Ozzie and Harriet. The play, directed by Donya K. Washington, runs through Dec. 1, so grab tickets for this weekend.
Ms. Rebeck has become a prolific, successful playwright. I have fond memories of the Express’ “Mauritius” (2009) and “Seminar” (2013). Artistic Director Freddie Ashley comments that her work has “thorny, complex people who often inhabit some pretty fascinating extremes.” Touché, Mr. Ashley.
But as meticulously crafted as her work is, “Downstairs” is a showcase for three fine actors. And the theatre gods have smiled, because we have them: They are Mary Lynn Owen, William S. Murphey, and Travis Smith—all three at the top of their game.
Teddy (Mr. Smith) is spending a few days in his big sister Irene’s (Ms. Owen) basement. He’s lost his job; in addition, he is sure that a man at his office has been poisoning him. Also he frets that the money his late mother left Irene and him has gone disproportionately to Irene and her controlling husband Gerry (Mr. Murphey), whom we don’t see until the play is almost two-thirds over.
In addition, Teddy wants Irene to front him some money so he can start some mysterious project. She balks: “If you want to act this crazy, I’m not going to allow you to stay in my basement.”
The plot thickens: Using sibling radar, Teddy can tell that Irene is deeply troubled, nervous, neurotic, and especially, under the whims of her quite sinister, unseen husband. He wants to help her; she wants to help him. But neither knows what to do. Gerry, the unseen (so far) husband, has Irene at his beck and call. Finally, both siblings become convinced that Gerry is some some sort of a demon — a truly malevolent man.
Finally, Gerry appears, first to Teddy. He wants Teddy out of his house — pronto.
You may be thinking that the siblings are both a bit wacky. They are. But they’re not insane; life has dealt each a bad deck of cards. However (sibling power again), they know each other and they have each other — with all their frailties and peccadilloes. And they come to realize that husband Gerry could be a bigger threat than either knew.
Oh — there’s a computer in the basement that Irene (and later Gerry) insists is broken. But Teddy uses it easily. What gives? A lot. This computer becomes a metaphor (for this viewer) for all that is broken and maybe evil in the house.
A word about the basement (Isabel A. and Moriah Curley-Clay, scenic design). Do you remember the final big scene in “The Silence of the Lambs”? Of course you do — if you saw the film. The basement in “Downstairs” becomes truly ominous — and ultimately quite horrifying. “The Silence of the Lambs” has made me permanently leery of basements — maybe Ms. Rebeck feels the same.
The actors: This is the most intense, detailed, riveting work I’ve ever seen from Ms. Owen. She’s always good; but her Irene takes you someplace else.
Like many Atlanta theatregoers, I’ve thought of Mr. Smith as a talented performer in musical theatre (who can forget his award-winning performance in Aurora Theatre’s “Memphis”?). But with his complex Teddy he more than holds his own with Ms. Owens; he’s excellent.
Then there’s Mr. Murphey. When he finally makes his entrance, his mere presence stops you in your tracks; you can hardly breathe, wondering what he’ll do next. He’s a major talent (hard to believe he is same actor who delighted so many in Theatrical Outfit’s recent “I Love to Eat”).
Kudos to Ms. Washington for investing this dark work with such delicious tension.
For tickest and information, visit actors-express.com.