Plays stand out among other art forms because of the intimacy with which audiences experience the performance — only an arm’s reach away from the actors. Actor’s Express at the King Plow Arts Center continues its 32nd season by putting on an invigorating performance of Theresa Rebeck’s play “Downstairs.” In the show, a brother and sister reunite for the first time in years and must face both their troubled childhood and current circumstances. The most prominent motif in the show is manipulation, which acts as a reminder of how not to foster healthy relationships. The play runs from Nov. 6 to Dec. 1, and while it has some confusing moments, it’s an insightful and thought-provoking performance.
“Downstairs” is a riveting and immersive play set in the cluttered basement of a modern-day home. The play focuses on a short segment of Irene’s (Mary Lynn Owen) life as her financially distressed younger brother Teddy (Travis Smith) makes a place for himself in her basement, much to the disapproval of her husband Gerry (William S. Murphey). While at first the play meanders around the history of the characters on stage, it eventually explores the growing strife within the family. Painful memories from the past collide with the harsh realities of the present in ways that drastically change the characters’ lives.
The magic of “Downstairs” becomes apparent as conflicts between characters arise. When Teddy and Irene get lost in recollections of their past, their on-stage energy increases as they laugh, cry and lament together about their broken family life. But when one character is dissonant from another, like when Teddy and Gerry clash about the immediate future of the family, the tension is almost painful. That is the root of the play’s interpersonal conflict.
The performances, however, are less impactful when examined individually. Teddy’s tendency to jump from idea to idea, while establishing his relationship with others through excited or anxious stuttering, negates the development of the plot because of his hard-to-follow dialogue. Furthermore, Irene’s character transformation from a meek, submissive woman to an individual who stands up for herself is poorly supported as the play continues, making moments where she acts on her own behalf stand out as surprising and out of character.
“Downstairs” highlights crucial, current issues such as mental illness and toxic gender norms. The play overtly casts a negative light on the issues it hopes to illuminate in society but plays into the stigmas of gender inequality. The disparaging language of misogyny, in turn, propagates those issues as permissible and somewhat tarnishes the message the play is trying to communicate.
The 105-minute play runs without an intermission, but scene transitions come at key moments, especially when audience members need a moment to recover and catch their breaths. For example, Gerry delivers a moving monologue about personhood in a modern, cramped society, which left me reeling because of the character’s grim philosophy and the actor’s powerful delivery of the lines. These transitions are accompanied by changes in the basement’s lighting where thin, grimy windows set high on the rear wall faintly reveal the time of each scene.
Though the play never leaves the cramped confines of the basement, “Downstairs” excels at building an immersive setting. The plot and its intricacies are introduced from the first moments of the play as Teddy practices his morning routine and brings attention to several items throughout the set. The attention to detail continued after the play concluded as director Donya K. Washington showed me various set pieces that subtly added to the aura of the set, from books on the shelf to specific workbench items that exceeded what one would normally find in a basement.
“Downstairs” is an incredibly well-produced show that allows the audience to effortlessly hone in on the dialogue unfolding on stage. Upon further scrutiny, however, the lack of dynamic gender representation weakens the effectiveness of the overall message by pandering to stereotypes of gender inequality. “Downstairs” is tough to swallow at times, but it is a high-quality theater experience for audiences willing to explore manipulation and doubt, as well as come face-to-face with the worst sides of humanity.