Irene’s unfinished basement is a catch-all for abandoned stuff including a clunky, outdated computer and miscellaneous tools. It’s so dirty and dusty, one can almost detect odor. There are rumpled blankets on the old couch. A clothesline hangs empty. (Excellent Set – Narelle Sissons.)
Teddy (Tim Daly) exits the bathroom, toothbrush in his mouth, wearing only a (discreet) shirt. At ease in the environment, he putters around, pours water on yesterday’s grinds in the coffee maker, empties a plastic container of nails and fills it with dry cereal, all without removing the toothbrush. There’s no milk.
“Put some clothes on,” his sister, Irene (Tyne Daly), says, descending the stairs, fluttering at the sight, palpably embarrassed. Teddy, ostensibly on hiatus from his job, is crashing until “a start-up thing” on which he’s working comes together. A cardboard, accordion folder stands in for the assumed fact.
Irene keeps anxiously looking towards the stairs during their conversation. Husband Gerry (John Procaccino) has demanded Teddy leave. “Why can’t I stay? It’s your house too,” he protests. In fact, were Teddy not fragile, their mother’s money would have been left to both of them. Instead, Irene inherited and her husband took over, controlling finances.
Three things are clear: 1. Chemistry between real life siblings Tyne and Tim Daly for whom this play was written, is terrific. 2. Teddy, who complains he’s suffered multiple unexplained symptoms due to poisoning by someone at his office, is paranoid delusional. He really needs a safe haven. 3. Irene is an emotionally battered woman. “I don’t know what to tell him,” she gasps, referring to her bullying husband.
Worried about Teddy, Irene brings down a dinner tray, even baking a cake she remembers he favored. Fragments of her current life are revealed: Gerry disdains her apparently excellent cooking, only eating fast food. She is allowed no friends and goes out only to grocery shop. Her brother sees mistreatment; she denies it.
Talk of the siblings’ childhood indicates very different memories. We get the sense that Teddy’s might be more authentic. Both were maimed by early years. Irene whiplashes back and forth supporting and vehemently denying her brother, controlled by love and fear.
Tyne Daly, Tim Daly
Watching Tyne Daly literally breathe life into her character is a marvel. Irene chokes to hold back tears, vibrates with kinetic apprehension (picture a hummingbird), exhales pathetic sheepishness so deeply we imagine her chest collapsing. During parentheses of familial connection, we see joy and hope. Nothing is overplayed. There’s not a false note.
Tim Daly, from whom we’re accustomed to being offered lighter fare, manifests Teddy like a walking wound. Every move is tentative. Even being touched has become an issue. Overwhelmed by life, this fundamentally sweet man devises stories to explain/justify his feelings. When flashes of perception and intelligence arrive, Irene lumps them with other fantasies, sometimes parroting Gerry. The rest of us watch frustrated as Teddy recedes back into defensive fugue.
Eventually, while Irene is out, Gerry descends to confront Teddy. John Procaccino is frightening. A big man, he moves with the ease of an experienced predator. Stillness creates tension that holds us on the edge. The actor projects brute power. Speaking calmly, hands in his pockets, unrepentant malevolence is so offhand, it’s visceral. Teddy packs up, but things do not go back to “normal.” Aided by her absent brother, Irene makes a discovery and…
Playwright Theresa Rebeck’s Downstairs is vividly imagined, addressing not just domestic abuse, but menace so unfathomable, we ignore or deny its existence. The author often presents situations/ideas which relate to broader narrative. Apply this to contemporary events. Writing is economic, specific, insightful, illuminating. Every character feels immediate and authentic.
Director Adrienne Campbell-Holt employs tremendous Machiavellian restraint. What characters don’t display is as important as dialogue or movement. Emotion seems caught in the gut making it all the more alarming. Timing is masterful. Rebeck’s denouement lands with every bit of intended surprise.
Costumes by Sarah Laux are pitch perfect reflections of personality and circumstance. M.L. Dogg’s Sound Design is unnerving and evocative, never regressing into suspense cliché.
Photos by James Leynse
Opening: Tim Daly, Tyne Daly
Primary Stages presents
Downstairs by Theresa Rebeck
Directed by Adrienne Campbell-Holt
Cherry Lane Theatre
38 Commerce Street
Through December 22, 2018