City Theatre’s ‘Downstairs’ Relies on Strong Performances to Explore Family Violence Themes

Pictured: Martin Giles and Helena Ruoti Photo Credit: Kristi Jan Hoover

City Theatre is staging Theresa Rebeck’s Downstairs this month. Originally written for actor siblings Tyne and Tim Daly, the plot focuses on adult siblings Irene and Teddy. Teddy has taken up residency in the basement of the house Irene shares with her husband. Teddy pokes at an old computer that Irene claims is broken, they discuss their childhood and adult lives and husband Jerry menaces from above.

The set and the acting carry the day while the plot meanders from family drama to domestic violence and back again with a lot of theatrical tropes stuffed inbetween.

There are some references to sexual violence and animal abuse that felt heavy handed and gratuitous, meant to elicit a gasp rather than add nuance or emphasis to the story of a terrible, no-good man. It was all unnecessary much like Irene wearing her coat inside the house, a symbol of her character development that seems so odd since she’s inside a perfectly warm home. The ending felt too neat to me, too contrived when another equally obvious direction for the denouement scene would have tied the two halves together, sister and brother standing up for themselves and each other together in the face of an abusive brute.

The set was stellar, a finished but dingy basement from Anytown, USA. I was a little curious why Irene and Jerry claimed they never used the basement while the washing machine, dryer, and ironing board were right there. That was a naggling disconnect for me – do they use the basement or not? Did Jerry use the computer or not? I suspect the plot plodding along a bit too much gave my mind time to wander and wonder.

Martin Giles shines as Jerry. We saw him last in The Old Curiosity Shop at PICT and I couldn’t help notice that some of his body movement choices for Teddy were similar to that role. Helena Ruoti as Irene kept up with Giles during the several extended patter between the two characters. Helena Ruoti agreed to a Q&A with our blog and we hope to publish her responses soon. John Shepard took Gerry from jagoff to evil in milliseconds.

City Theatre does post a general notice about the ‘unsettling’ content, advising patrons to contact them for more information tied to specific themes. After reading about the play in other publications, I went in fully expecting serious twists and turns from the implied heavy themes. But I do think the general resistance to ‘spoiling’ plot twists by sharing content notes is a disservice to the community and perhaps one reason younger audiences don’t turn out. Is it really about artistic integrity to protect plot points or just the way we’ve historically framed art without regard for trauma?

Downstairs runs through February 2, 2020. There’s a pay-what-you-want performance on Sunday. Otherwise tickets start at $29.


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