Sometimes I just don't feel anywhere near equal to the theatre I'm supposed to write about: Axis Company's extraordinary and powerful new play, Down There, still has me overwhelmed and humbled by its profundity and artistry. It's based on the Sylvia Likens case, which you can read about in Wikipedia: called the most horrible crime ever to happen in Indianapolis, this 1965 murder of a 16-year-old girl followed months of emotional and physical abuse that included beatings and the carving of the words "I'm a prostitute and proud of it" on her stomach with a heated needle.
Playwright/director Randy Sharp (who is also Axis's artistic director) isn't interested in horror-show sensationalism in Down There; this is no Martin McDonagh-style scarefest. Instead, Down There asks the question WHY. It's easy to call out evil when we see it; much harder to try to comprehend where it comes from. How does a seemingly ordinary wife and mother mastermind a crime like the one that eventually killed Sylvia Likens? How do her seemingly ordinary kids and their friends and neighbors let it happen?
Sharp has fictionalized the tale; though the events and circumstances generally follow the outline of the Likens case, the characters have different names and identities. The play begins by introducing us to the Menckl family, who live an unhappy, squalid life in a lower middle class neighborhood in Indianapolis. Pat, the mother, is plagued by back pain—she's usually bent over like a crab, in fact. When we first meet her, she's arguing with her husband Frank about his drinking. They have a son, Jim, who is mentally retarded. And their household is also occupied by three other teenage children—Pat's niece, Paula, plus two neighbor kids, Rickie and John, who seem to be mostly entrusted to Pat's care despite having (very troubled) families of their own.
Into this sad and ugly place arrive Casey and Joyce, teenage sisters about the same age as Paula whose mother has had to leave the area to care for her sister, who is dying of cancer. For $20 a week, Pat is supposed to take care of Casey and Joyce until their mother returns for them. Joyce, her legs in braces, has polio. Casey is a bright, average, normal girl.
We know right from the start what's going to happen to Casey. What the play explores is the downward spiral that leads to its gruesome end. Events unfold in a series of scenes depicting the gradual degradation of everyone in the Menckl household and the scapegoating of Casey. Somehow, Sharp and her remarkable collaborators enable us to feel empathy with everyone involved. There are no monsters here, just ill-used people lashing out against bad fortune. There's no single factor to blame, either: poverty (or something very near it), lack of education, ill health, and addictions all come into play. Sharp isolates for us some particular demons assaulting the Menckls—a maze of taboos relating to the human body and sexuality (Frank tells stories about the prostitutes he bedded when he was a soldier in World War II, but seems incapable of actually saying the word "prostitute") and the omnipresent, deadening drone of a TV set that never seems to be turned off.
And though Pat is clearly the instigator in the ultimate assault on Casey, one of the important ideas in Down There is that there are no bystanders, here or anywhere in life. Maybe the scariest aspect of the play is the way the teenagers in Pat's charge readily adopt a mob behavior, going along with Pat's warped ideas instead of challenging them. (And of course throughout there's another question: where are the neighbors?)
The artistry of this production is superlative. Sharp's script—mostly linear, with occasional repetitions and replays, especially of the letter that Casey is forced to write to her mother as her death draws near—is spare and incisive; her direction, as ever, is economical and taut and gripping. Production elements, including a simple set that depicts, with a masterful blend of naturalism and abstraction, three rooms on three levels of the Menckls' house (basement, dining room/living room, bedroom), create the claustrophobic environment brilliantly. (The set is uncredited; costumes are by Elisa Santiago, lighting by David Zeffren, and sound by Steve Fontaine.)
The cast of eight—all Axis veterans—do astonishingly strong work. Laurie Kilmartin, stooped and in an unflattering brown wig, dominates the proceedings as Pat, a woman whose every word and deed feels like a cry for help caught endlessly in an echo chamber. Jim Sterling is a mass of hypocrisies as the alcoholic, emotionally absent Frank. Regina Betancourt's Joyce is the silent observer; George Demas's Jim is superbly and vividly rendered, the only authentically innocent presence in the play. As the teenagers Paula, John, and Rickie, Britt Genelin, Brian Barnhart and David Crabb exemplify passivity, impotence, and banality: they're convincingly adolescent, riddled with doubts and hormones. Lynn Marcinelli, as Casey, plays the contradictions that the play requires: we see that Casey is the victim, sure; but we also see what it is about her that alienates Pat and the others so much.
I am in awe at the accomplishment of Down There: this is genuinely cathartic theatre that enlarges our understanding of the human condition in an important way. It is harrowing and disturbing and therefore not for everyone (certainly not young children); it's compassionate and horrified in its examination of what our species proves that it's capable of.