Rebeck’s tragic puzzle solved ‘Downstairs’

Photo by Gerry Goodstein
From left, John Procaccino, Tyne Daly and Tim Daly during a tough moment in Theresa Rebeck’s “Downstairs” at Dorset Theatre Festival.

Jim Lowe
THE LOWE DOWN

When Theresa Rebeck’s new play “Downstairs” opened Friday at the Dorset Playhouse, the audience seemed to think it was watching a sitcom. That was at the beginning.

The world-premiere production of “Downstairs” opened Dorset Theatre Festival’s 40th season, continuing the high level of professional theater the company has been delivering these days. Adding to the stellar quality of the production was the cast comprised of Tyne and Tim Daly, sister and brother television stars, on stage together for the first time, and Broadway regular John Procaccino.

Rebeck, with many Broadway credits and a part-time Dorset resident, has crafted an intimate 90-minute drama that might be best described as a puzzle, with pieces being added here and there until the picture becomes visible. Before that point, you’re never quite sure — and perhaps not entirely so then.

Homeless Teddy (Tim Daly) has moved into his sister Irene’s (Tyne Daly) basement. His explanations as to why he is there seem confused, as he describes being poisoned at work and simultaneously promises a big business breakthrough, which he is working on with a computer he found in the basement. But, Irene insists, the computer doesn’t work.

The two reminisce about their shared troubled childhood with an alcoholic mother and absent father. (This may go on a bit long.) As pieces of the puzzle begin to fill out the picture, a third and darker element enters. Irene’s husband Gerry (Procaccino) doesn’t want Teddy in his basement — and it’s not just because Gerry doesn’t like Teddy.

When Gerry confronts Teddy while Irene is shopping, the situation accelerates and ignites — moving to a most unexpected conclusion.

The interaction in the Dorset production, directed by Adrienne Campbell-Holt, is pure chamber music. Tim Daly proves a virtuoso actor in his portrayal of Teddy as a functional schizophrenic. (The script doesn’t diagnose Teddy, but the signs are there.) What is delusion and what is real? Daly doesn’t reveal a thing until the end.

Tyne Daly’s Irene has secrets too, and she reluctantly reveals bits and pieces, some through her lines, others through her nuanced expressiveness. Complementing her brother’s Teddy, sharing lighter moments as well as darker ones, she becomes a barely stopped pressure cooker of emotion as she realizes what the pieces mean. It would reveal too much to describe Procaccino’s Gerry, but he certainly had the power to ignite the situation.

Dorset’s physical production felt authentic and certainly created the right atmosphere. Narelle Sessions’ typically grungy basement was dramatized by Michael Giannitti’s lighting. And Teddy’s disconnection and Irene’s hopeful frumpiness were accentuated by Charles Schoonmaker’s costumes. All were underscored by M.L. Dogg’s strident, if obvious, sound design.

Dorset’s premiere production of Rebeck’s “Downstairs” proved not only a dramatic powerhouse, but a deeply touching story of family. Rebeck has created unusually authentic and dimensional characters, heightening the mystery — and making the finale all the more delicious.

Dorset Theatre Festival

Dorset Theatre Festival presents the world premiere of “Downstairs,” a drama by Theresa Rebeck, June 22-July 8 at the Dorset Playhouse, 104 Cheney Road in Dorset. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, plus 2 p.m. matinees Wednesdays. Tickets are $39-$52, with discounts for students; call 802-867-2223 ext. 2, or go online to dorsettheatrefestival.org.