Daly and Tyne Daly. Photo: James Leynse
By Fern Siegel
is an accepted axiom that brutal people often destroy the good. It can result
in mental or physical damage, or simply the threat of harm, should you cross them.
legacy of familial violence is the subject of Theresa Rebeck’s latest work, Downstairs,
presented by Primary Stages at the Cherry Lane Theatre. Rebeck, who was
represented on Broadway this fall with Bernhardt/Hamlet, tackles a more
intimate reality: the fraught pathology of a brother and sister.
to underscore that closeness, real-life brother and sister Tim and Tyne Daly
have been cast. In fact, Rebeck
wrote Downstairs expressly
for them, as they have never shared a stage.
Downstairs is set in a grungy
basement, courtesy of designer Narelle Sissons, where Teddy (Tim Daly) has taken up
residence. He’s got the harried, worn look of the beaten. His eyes skirt
nervously around the room; his gestures are stilted. Defensive, but sensitive,
his one salvation is his sister Irene (Tyne Daly), who is trying to provide him
a modicum of physical and psychological refuge.
I was a kid, I thought you were an angel,” he tells her. And she does her best
to care for him, given the sad confines of her own life.
is a bit evasive as to his recent history, which worries Irene. She’s forever
apologizing for their alcoholic mother who, abandoned by her husband, took out
her rage on Teddy. The adult man seems a damaged version of that defenseless
young boy; his scars have never healed.
Irene tries to find compassion for their angry, depressed mother. Both are
locked in the cycle of abuse and despair that has proven inescapable. Yet their
concern for each other, which grows as the story unfolds, raises a more
profound question: What are the obligations of family?
two are locked in a strange quasi-power struggle for recognition. Teddy
claims to be on a break from his job, but assures his sister he has big future
plans. She suspects something isn’t right, even as her own life is wanting. No
kids, no friends, no pets — only the ominous cloud of husband Gerry (John
Procaccino), who treats her with disdain.
Of course, it takes Teddy to force her to
acknowledge the dark, nasty undercurrents in her home. His hold on reality may
be tenuous, but he’s perceptive. Teddy sees the tragedy of his sister’s life
with piercing clarity.
Downstairs is a taut drama
about broken people desperate for connection. It is fittingly set in a
basement, which offers no escape. The play sensitively explores how oppressive
loneliness and heartache can be. It also reveals the darkness that is often
excused or ignored in the power struggles within a marriage and between
Adrienne Campbell-Holt’s tight direction gets the best from her cast, who often play
against type. Tyne and Tim Daly are perfect counterparts, and their
anguish, whether muted or unleashed, is all too real. As the tension ratchets
up in this part horror-part thriller, audiences are riveted by the menacing
fear of what might happen.
Once secrets and lies are unleashed, there
are only two paths: destruction or redemption.
Lane Theater, 38 Commerce St. New York, NY. (Through December 22.) Running
time: 105 minutes, no intermission. Tickets: www.cherrylanetheatre.org/tickets/