Play about a serial killer challenges morbid fascination
Two Crows’ ‘Down the Road’ peers inside the mind of a monster
You can be forgiven if your jaw drops a little when you realize that playwright Lee Blessing penned “Down the Road,” his play about a pair of reporters trying to write a book about a serial killer, a whopping 30–plus years ago. While It’s true that we’ve always been fascinated by murderous monsters, it’s still unsettling as hell to realize this play first debuted years before we were ever introduced to the likes of Hannibal Lecter.
In the intervening decades, our fascination has only grown to the point where the number of shows that center on psychopaths and serial killers (“Mindhunter,” “Hannibal” and nearly every NCIS show) threatens to dwarf the number of real-life victims claimed by real-life madmen such as Jeffrey Dahmer and Ed Gein. That’s a fact that both hovers over and heightens the drama of Two Crows Theater’s current production staged through this weekend, March 6-8, in the Slowpoke Lounge in Spring Green.
American Players Theatre vets and married in real life, Melisa Pereyra and Jeb Burris play Iris and Dan, a pair of journos who’ve been hired to write a tawdry page-turner about the gory misdeeds of William Reach (Two Crows artistic director Robert Doyle), an incarcerated killer who’s killed, raped and dismembered at least 19 young women. Camped in the middle of nowhere, America, they begin their assignment with a gusto that dissolves the deeper they get into it.
The set is easily the most cramped Two Crows has deployed in the Slowpoke Lounge’s black-box space. Audience seating consumes two-thirds of the real estate, while the set itself is split between the dingy prison room where Dan and Iris interview and play mind-games with Reach and the equally dingy motel room where they parse their interview recordings and try to maintain their sanity. At first, Reach is confined to the prison room, but as the play hurtles onward, he follows Dan and Iris into the motel room, a creepy but none-too-subtle marker of the way his evil deeds and manipulation are poisoning the relationship of Dan and Iris.
Blessing’s script has a lot of those kind of touches, from the rusting water heater that Iris fixates on to the last name of our less-than-friendly neighborhood serial killer. Some of the initial scene breaks are jarringly abrupt, and so’s the ending, which rearranges the characters on the emotional chess board and then just leaves them there, like a basement light switch that’s been suddenly flipped off.
Director Jim Ridge (also of APT) coaxes performances that more than carry the day. Pereyra does a fabulous job navigating the twists and turns of her character, who goes from uber-confident to nearly broken by Reach’s manipulation. The horror she feels when she realizes he’s lying — embellishing details and suggesting unrevealed victims to juice book sales — is palpable. So’s the fire she puts into her final scenes.
Burris’s Dan, meanwhile, heads the opposite direction. Burris plays him like a well-intentioned golden retriever, a clumsy interviewer who’s just here to plow through the job and get the paycheck. His hangdog affect jostles nicely against Pereyra’s determination.
It’s Doyle’s job, of course, to scare the hell of us, and at first, his portrayal of Reach seems almost too glib and mild to be terrifying. We’ve been conditioned to expect something akin to the snaky sneer of Anthony Hopkins. But that’s the genius of Doyle’s performance. It’s a mask that slowly slips to reveal a murderous rage when he’s not in control and getting his way. His almost clinical descriptions of the horrible things he’s done ought to shock us — and at several points they do — but they also demonstrate how our endless fascination with serial murder has desensitized us to the incomprehensible horror of it all.
That’s where this Two Crows production cuts the deepest — as an indictment of our insatiable desire to wallow in violence and probe the minds of the monsters who perpetuate it. Dan is sadly correct when he points out that if he and Iris don’t share Reach’s self-aggrandizing and blood-soaked story with the world, someone else will.
Co-stars and spouses find value in the macabre
Wallowing in the details of a serial killer’s bloody misdeeds probably isn’t anyone’s idea of quality time for a married couple. But for Pereyra and Burris, they’re enjoying it.
“It was an easy decision for us,” says Pereyra of teaming up with her spouse. “I love plays that ask difficult questions and I love working with my partner. To get to do both at the same time was a no-brainer.”
This isn’t the first time the couple have performed together on stage. APT fans may remember the magic they conjured in APT’s 2016 production of the romantic period comedy “The Game of Love and Chance.”
“Down the Road” has a much trickier vibe to navigate.
“The play requires an intimacy that was both terrifying and exhilarating to me,” says Burris.
Over the course of the play, Dan and Iris’s marriage begins to crumble, corroded by the horrific nature of the subject matter they’re covering and the fact that Reach pits them against each other. Just as their characters are affected, so too are the actors playing them.
“I think, in a way, artists are always asked to be a kind of detective,” says Pereyra. “We do have to ask ourselves when we accept a role what it is that we are promoting? What we are a part of, what we listen to, what we watch, the characters we step into — they affect us. In the same way that Dan and Iris are discovering how much it costs to expose themselves to these stories, we ask ourselves similar questions as actors.”
Both Pereyra and Burris are struck by the fact that the rampant proliferation of TV shows and movies focused on serial killers —seriously, there are hundreds of them now — seems to have numbed us to the horror or it all.
“It [the play] really holds the mirror up and asks again, 30 years later, what part do you play in the idolization of these people?” asks Pereyra. “Whose story are you promoting? Our play focuses on two people who are obsessed with figuring out why. I think our culture is still obsessed with this. It is what keeps us glued to the television as we binge crime story after crime story.”
Burris and Pereyra are the latest in a growing line of APT actors (Tracy Michell Arnold, Kelsey Brennan, Colleen Madden, Marcus Truschinki, Josh Krause and Brenda DeVita) to avail themselves of working with Two Crows in Spring Green.
“It means we get to create together, and it means we get to share more art with a community that is already familiar with us and our work — so we can push each other to continue to do better,” says Pereyra.
On second thought, that sounds like some pretty OK couple’s time after all.
Aaron R. Conklin covers the Madison-area theater scene for madisonmagazine.com.