by Gail M. Burns
(NOTE: This is the second time in my career I have had to write about performing siblings with both the same last name and the same first initial. Luckily the Dalys are not the same gender – the last pair were – so once I have introduced them as Tim Daly and Tyne Daly I will be referring to them as Mr. Daly and Ms Daly.)
Both playwright Theresa Rebeck and actor Tim Daly have close relationships the state of Vermont and the Dorset Theatre Festival. When Mr. Daly was starring in Rebeck’s play The Scene at Dorset in 2013 he suggested that she write a play for him and his sister Tyne Daly to do together. While they have appeared in film and on television together they have never shared the stage. In this world premiere of Rebeck’s Downstairs they play a brother and sister of similar age to the actors, but there the resemblances ends.
In a recent interview with Stratton Magazine Rebeck spoke of the influences of her surroundings in Vermont, including her home in Dorset, had had on Downstairs. “The specific idea for the play grew out of them, and also out of the basement of our guesthouse in Vermont,” Rebeck explains. “It is a strange and interesting space to me, and I thought it might be great to set a play there.”
In that same Stratton interview, Ms. Daly is quoted as saying: “I’ve concluded after 56 years in this business, that I don’t believe in art that doesn’t move you. It has to move you. You have to rile people up either with funny, or scary, or things to think about.”
Downstairs hits all three of Ms Daly’s goals. It is moving, funny, and scary, and it gives one many things to think about.
Considering the depth of the material, it is ironic that the plot can be explained in one sentence: The play chronicles the week Teddy (Tim Daly) stays in the basement of his sister Irene’s (Tyne Daly) modest single family home, a reality that doesn’t sit well with Irene’s husband, Gerry (John Procaccino).
This simple set-up sounds like an episode of All In the Family where Edith is concealing a wayward sibling from Archie’s wrath, and while there are some good laughs and a happy ending in Downstairs, it is neither a comedy nor simple.
All three characters are deeply damaged people who have only barely made it to late-middle-age in one piece, largely by pretending to be someone they are not. An intelligent man, Teddy pretends he has work and “investment opportunities” just around the corner. A meek woman, Irene pretends to have an American Dream marriage and home life. Gerry pretends to be an average Joe and a decent human being. We learn that Teddy and Irene’s father left them alone with their alcoholic mother – a fate Irene largely escaped because, as the older sibling, she was out on her own while Teddy, as a minor child, was at his mother’s mercy.
Rebeck has obviously worked to create roles for the Dalys that play against type. They are both known for playing strong characters, while Teddy and Irene are scared and vulnerable souls. Americans tend to blithely accept performers as their characters, so it is great fun to be reminded that our beloved actors are actually acting when we see them on stage or screen. These people are neither Teddy and Irene nor Joe Hackett and Mary Beth Lacey. They are artists at the top of their games.
Rebeck falls into that same category. She has written and continues to write excellent, intriguing plays and screenplays that run the gamut from comedy to mystery to tragedy. She holds her Ph.D. from Brandeis University in Victorian era melodrama, and Downstairs shares a lot in common with that genre, only the embarrassing/mentally ill relative is hidden in the basement instead of the attic. There is a lot of suspense, lives are threatened, and some mysteries are left unsolved.
In this iteration of the play, the character of Gerry is much too broadly drawn. He’s the villain and director Adrienne Campbell-Holt has Procaccino play him that way. Unlike Teddy and Irene, Gerry gets no back story. We never find out how and why he became the angry, dangerous man he is, and have no sympathy for him.
Narelle Sissons’ set is convincingly grungy, but the ceiling is way too high. It is both unusual and tricky – sightlines, lighting, masking – for a stage set to have a ceiling, but in a play set in a crummy old basement you have to create that feeling of being underneath something. The basements of my acquaintance have all been low-ceiled, sometimes oppressively so, requiring ducking under beams and pipes, so the really dramatic height of this basement space is disconcerting. Also, unfinished basements are generally open, with few if any dividing walls. Sissons’ set has odd nooks off stage right and left. The stage left bump out is obviously the bathroom, but no explanation is given for the jog stage right.
Michael Giannitti’s well concealed lighting is spot on, though, setting a suitably dank and subterranean mood. Charles Schoonmaker’s costumes immediately establish the characters from Teddy’s filthy and mismatched socks to Jerry’s totally unremarkable day wear (this is a man who does not want to call attention to himself) to Irene’s small stabs at style, notably a bright green coat that brings back memories of happier days. Ms. Daly’s gorgeous snow white hair, in various arrangements, is her crowning glory, so while Irene is not a glamor-puss, Ms Daly looks lovely.
I attended with a full house and I would not be surprised if tickets were very hard to come by for rest of the run of Downstairs. This is an opportunity to see American theatrical royalty on stage in a new work by one of our finest living playwrights in a beautiful and intimate setting in rural Vermont. For lord’s sake, don’t miss it!
Downstairs by Theresa Rebeck, directed by Adrienne Campbell-Holt, runs June 22-July 8, 2017 at the Dorset Theatre Festival, 104 Cheney Road in Dorset, Vermont. Scenic design by Narelle Sissons; lighting design by Michael Giannitti; costume design by Charles Schoonmaker; sound design by ML Dogg; stage manager Will Rucker. CAST: Tim Daly as Teddy; Tyne Daly as Irene; John Procaccino as Gerry. The show runs an hour and fifty minutes with no intermission. For tickets call 802-867-2223, ext 2, or visit dorsettheatrefestival.org