by Margret Echeverria
Lee Blessing premiered his play DOWN THE ROAD in 1991 when Ann Rule’s sensational paperbacks detailing the murders of Ted Bundy and Diane Downs peppered US drug stores. Today, our fascination with serial killers is fully lit and the revival of Blessing’s play at Arts on Site down on St. Mark’s is nearly sold out most nights. But if you can fight for a ticket, it is worth it.
Director, Chris Ryan, tightly holds an ensemble of three. William Reach (Jack Alberts) is our boy-faced grinning serial killer. Iris and Dan Henniman (Quinn Jackson and Zachary Desmond, respectively) are married writers, teaming up for the first time to document Reach’s story, make sense of the murders of nineteen women and possibly sell out. Iris is an experienced journalistic professional expecting success in this endeavor. She instructs Dan, new to this writing genre, in the technique of picking Reach’s brain without letting the psychopath into one’s head. Iris is stoic, facing a little too theatrically full front in her late 80’s loafers and blazer over a pull-over when we meet her before the first interview. She is certain all these monsters are the same making this assignment hard work, but predictable. Dan interviews Reach first and is blind-sided by a master manipulator who does not even have to speak to make a person vulnerable and even apologetic.
The staging puts sex and violence in our laps. Iris and Dan have sweet heat in the beginning. The sexy warmth in the married couple quickly unravels as each take a turn with a cassette recorder on a metal table across from the Devil. The waiting spouse is in a hiway motel putting thoughts on paper and into a compact cassette recorder. Segments of the increasingly disturbing interview sessions and private often obsessive thoughts on the tapes are played back edging our psychological despair. My gut twists with empathy as Iris abandons her prescribed vigilance and identifies with the victim narratives. Alberts creeps on Desmond and my eyes sting as I think, wait . . . are they hot for each other??! No . . . yes . . . oh, no! Marriage thrives on shared pleasurable experience. Sometimes in that pink glow, babies arrive to grow in the sweet world love makes. This gig – critical to their livelihood, mind you – upsets the desired love cycles with a forced focus on death and horror isolating them in a gray New England town off a barren interstate. Their minds are poisoned by a villain walking nightmares through their dreams causing them to turn on each other.
Jack Alberts grabs our attention despite all efforts to not become intimate with something evil. As we pray, Father . . . deliver us from . . . we want to look at it first. Alberts grins confident that he’s got you before we even realize, Yeah, he’s got us. There is a sickening moment when
Desmond throws the switch in Iris and Dan’s world and I feel like I have swallowed a soup of stones and tears as I am convinced that the marriage is destroyed. The loneliness in the silent expression of utter betrayal in Jackson’s eyes – so close to us – choked the breath out of me. The Hennimans stew in shame over the writing of a serial killer’s life, motives, lies, inspirations and incomprehensible actions. How does this work serve the world, the victims, the loved ones of the dead at all? A confession would help. But actually Dan and Iris may not be helping but rather perpetuating hopelessness. Blessing points out that we evolve through technology to connect us all. Ironically, since the US Interstate opened in the 1950’s, reports of serial killers have increased rapidly. As we introduce new generations to the world who seek deep loving connections, predators wait to earn a daughter’s trust, torture her and kill her in the most horrible way. I sometimes hear the cries of the children murdered by Ian Brady and Myra Hindley on the moors of Lancashire in the early sixties because sound recordings were found and released to the public. I don’t remember the names of the children. Cheney, Goodman and Schwerner I remember because, here in the United States, serial killers are as notorious as civil rights martyrs. This play lets this shameful blood from our wounds and it is good for us.
DOWN THE ROAD written by Lee Blessing, Directed by Christian Ryan
Through November 19, 2023 Arts on Site NYC, Inc., 12 St. Marks Place, New York, NY 10003.