Down the Road/Independence | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Down the Road/Independence 

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Triumvirate Productions
at Cafe Voltaire

Down the Road, Lee Blessing's 1988 play about a married couple hired by a serial killer to write his story, is a rather sinister tale that asks questions about the psychology of serial killers but then deliberately leaves them unanswered. Blessing, best known for his play A Walk in the Woods, also brings up some provocative questions about the writing of true-crime books, but again lets the audience members draw their own conclusions.

William Reach, based on Ted Bundy, raped and killed 19 women, and he intends the book to be his story. Iris and Dan Henniman are only the conduit. Throughout the play they're aware of this role. They know Reach can refuse to talk at any time--one false move and he might clam up, denying them their book and therefore their livelihood.

The play hinges on what Reach will tell and when. When it opens, Dan and Iris are holed up in a hotel ten miles from the maximum-security prison where Reach is. It seems that they're a pretty happy couple--all they have to do is work on the book and try to conceive a child. The two alternate visits to the prison. As one interviews Reach, the other records random impressions of the local landscape: the strip malls, the McDonald's, the ramshackle houses, the interstate highway. "Hopeless town," Iris says into her tape recorder while standing in the generic hotel room. "Empty lives. Wilderness that's approaching biblical."

This mundane world is juxtaposed with Reach's horrific stories. At first he answers questions in a cut-and-dried manner, giving specific details concerning the age of his victims, their clothing, how he raped and murdered them and then dumped their bodies near Sugar Lake. Slowly his stories and matter-of-fact attitude work on Dan and Iris's happy little world.

Iris becomes obsessed with figuring out the psychological motive behind these killings. As she tries to dig deeper into Reach's mind, he angrily refuses to answer her questions. Their story might be lost, but Iris's curiosity keeps pushing her. In the meantime Reach plays with the psyches of his interviewers. He baits them with the possibility that there were more than 19 killings. Iris nibbles at the thought, Dan takes a big bite. Eventually, as Reach embellishes his stories, reality--what is true crime--gets blurred.

Matt Morich is powerful as Reach. His baby-faced good looks are perfect for the part, but his slow revelation of Reach's character is what makes this production genuinely chilling. Jolaine Mann Orlin and Si Kenton seem uncomfortable with the early playful love talk of Iris and Dan, but as their characters get caught up in Reach's story they make their obsessions painfully strong.

The only complaint I have about this production is the cheap set. The basement of Cafe Voltaire doesn't allow for elaborate staging, but more could have been done with lighting, props, and furniture to support the sinister undertones of this play.


Spiral Productions
at Urbus Orbis

Blessing's forte seems to be the psychological drama. His 1991 play Independence digs deep into the psyches of an unstable mother and her three daughters as it explores the evolution of their relations. Fraught with the sort of familial tension that sends people into intense psychotherapy, Independence has the potential to run an audience through the wringer.

The show opens as Kess, the prodigal daughter, returns home after her sister Jo tells her she broke her neck. Jo's neck has healed, but the family hasn't. Jo tells Kess she's pregnant and that when their mother found out she pushed her off a six-foot-high sidewalk, breaking her neck. Kess's arrival becomes a catalyst, and the family begins confronting problems that have been festering for years.

The Spiral Productions version of this play hints at the potential in the script, but Marti Szalai-Raymond's cast doesn't bring out enough of the ugly parts of the characters' relationships. Blessing is playing with archetypal characters: the mother is neurotic and overbearing, and her three daughters fit the molds of whore, dyke, and prude. Berkely Rhodes, Deanna Lee Schreiber, Nicole Pitman, and Christina Koehlinger flesh out their characters well enough to keep them from being stereotypes, but perhaps in avoiding these stereotypes they miss the deeper tensions of this play.

Overall this is a fairly good show. The staging, pacing, and details such as Mark Raymond's eloquent sound design have been carefully thought out. But the cast needs to dig into the script.

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