EMH Production of Lee Blessing’s “Down the Road”: notes and comments

Lee Blessing’s “Down the Road” seems to me to be the definitive antithesis of what is popularly called a “thriller”.  The pace is even, moderate, and much of the time the story is mundane.  The people in the play are actually quite ordinary.  Even the serial killer.  And I suppose that’s exactly the point of the play.  Which is what makes it interesting.

Albert De Salvo and Ted Bundy got a lot of press (it seemed to me) for being arch-typically dangerous, evil and powerful.  Unlike poor Jeffery Dahmer, perhaps the worst ghoul in modern times, who was  portrayed as a nice guy with a very, very serious and very fatal fetish.  I think it’s true Dahmer couldn’t help himself; the others — well I think they liked to hurt people.  I never believed they couldn’t stop themselves.

Which brings us around to William Reach, the serial killer in “Down the Road.”  If I understood Dustin Miller’s portrayal correctly, Reach is immature, petulant, narcissistic, cunning, and thoroughly pathological in his need to control other people’s destiny.  It’s not at all clear that he actually had an uncontrollable urge to hurt his victims — he enjoyed it, but that doesn’t seem to have been the actual need he was trying to fill.  He had some need to avenge himself of some worldly slight.  For him the best revenge for having to live was revenge.  Nothing really extra-ordinary about that, it’s just that he was willing to indulge himself. And of course like all vengeful, self-indulgent characters, he wanted everyone to know his work.

The protagonists, Jake Lyall (Dan Henniman) and Iris Henniman (Elise Hodge) are not cunning, or narcissistic, or even particularly sublime.  They’re intelligent people, ordinary in their demeanor, journalists by trade.  They have careers to advance, a job to do.

When you consider the personalities involved, and the topic they are set to explore, it’s obvious from the start that the situation will not end well for the Hennimans.  And so it does not.  William Reach browbeats them, bullies them, lies to them, and slowly gets inside them.  He twists them inside out. He mocks them.  And in the end, Jake and Iris end up just like two people fascinated and repelled by something they consider evil — they can’t quite bring themselves not to look.

Dustin Miller did an outstanding job as Reach.  Miller’s angelic features belie the hateful nature of the character — those pretty eyes staring, unblinking, the passive face that is somehow sinister, the boyish voice with a nasty, nasty edge to it.  Through it all, William Reach was never really out of control.

Jake Lyall’s physical presence as Dan Henniman assumes command, but yields quickly.   What he has left of any killer instinct in quite subdued, and is only revealed as he plays moon to Reach’s sun.  Interestingly enough, both Henniman and Reach have an odd habit of smelling things: bedspreads, clothes, shoes.

Elise Hodge’s Iris Henniman is never comfortable in Reach’s presence, and she attacks him right from the start.  But in the end, in spite of her high spirited morality, she is far too pragmatic to actually walk away.

This is an excellent piece of work — extremely well acted, marvelously staged, and elegantly directed by Kara Ow.  I look forward to seeing more work from this team.

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