by Phil Beck
Down the Road, Lee Blessing’s drama about the relationship between a serial killer and two journalists writing a book about him, opened at Public Space One last Friday, March 23. Blessing is a prize-winning playwright and a graduate of Iowa’s Playwriting Workshop, both reasons to take interest in his work, but despite a potentially explosive subject, Down the Road delivers surprisingly little drama. Dreamwell’s sincere effort to make this production compelling is ultimately defeated by a lackluster script.
Married journalists Iris and Dan Henniman (Karle J. Meyers and Brian Tanner) journey to an isolated small town in order to interview a notorious serial killer, Bill Reach (Gavin Conkling), in a nearby prison. Reach has agreed to reveal to them the grisly details of his murders of nineteen women, as long as the book is written on his terms. Iris and Dan are hoping for the book’s commercial success so they can start a family. In between their grim interludes with the killer, they attempt to establish a kind of domestic normalcy in their drab motel room, musing on what it would be like to have a daughter.
Most of the play’s tension comes from the struggle between the two writers and their subject for control of the project. Reach wants the book to be a sensationalistic account of his killings to appeal to a bloodthirsty reading public and refuses to answer any questions concerning motives or other aspects of his life. The journalists—Iris in particular—are interested in finding out more about his background in order to explain what led him to kill. But Reach angrily insists on sticking to descriptions of how he committed each murder, and occasionally the feelings he experienced. The strain caused by this struggle for dominance eventually finds its way into Iris and Dan’s relationship, and as the play unfolds we see how the killer’s assertions of control begin to affect the way they interact with each other.
The premise has great potential for a gripping psychological drama, as well as a biting critique of popular culture’s role in creating celebrities out of monsters. But this promise goes largely unfulfilled. The scenes between the interviewers and Reach are depressingly flat. Blessing’s attempt to delve into the mind of a killer comes up empty of anything very interesting. Reach makes it clear he wants fame but ironically resists the writers’ attempts to flesh him out as a person, to add the psychological dimension that would assure him the renown he seeks. He displays no animosity toward his victims or pride in his “work”—in fact, his accounts of his crimes are perfunctory, his attitude toward them dismissive. He may be the most boring serial killer ever portrayed. Blessing offers no explanation for his blindness to this fact or for his defensiveness in general, other than his desire to control the situation to achieve his end–to tell the story in a way that in his opinion will make it most saleable. The point is certainly made: the search for notoriety, abetted by an enabling media, has become an end in itself. Reach seems to have no compelling desire to kill other than to get a book deal, a sly bit of social commentary but not the makings of memorable drama. It’s not just the journalists who are frustrated with Reach’s refusal to say anything revealing—as a member of the audience, I was, too.
The play is much more effective when exploring Reach’s destabilizing influence on Iris and Dan’s marriage. The two writers alternate their days interviewing Reach—while one talks with him, the other stays holed up in the dreary motel room, fighting boredom by recording their random thoughts. At night they compare their daily disappointments, which gradually turn to disappointment with each other. As their initial excitement at working together sours, the impact Reach is having on them is literally made visible–he begins to appear in their bedroom with them. Director Nate Sullivan stages these scenes simply, in a straightforward, matter-of-fact manner, which makes them more chilling than if he’d used ominous lighting or other effects to enhance the mood. As a result, the visuals do what Blessing’s words do not: demonstrate the scope of the murderer’s “reach” into, and power to profoundly alter, the lives of others.
As the cold-blooded killer, Gavin Conkling gives a crafty, restrained performance, establishing command with a penetrating narrow-eyed gaze and tightly pursed mouth, suggesting both his close-mouthedness and the violence suppressed within. The character lacks the charisma that would make him truly frightening, however, and thus he never becomes the imposing presence we expect a ruthless serial murderer to be. That’s the fault of the writing and not Conkling, who does what he can with the role’s built-in limitations. As the overmatched couple, Meyers and Tanner demonstrate an easy chemistry when they are alone, giving their early scenes together, before things start to unravel, a warm, unaffected charm. Neither actor is on as certain ground, however, when interacting with Reach, and the interrogation scenes suffer from a certain awkwardness that make them a bit unconvincing.
Performed without intermission, the play divides its time equally between interrogation room and motel room, which sit side by side on the stage. The mostly fluid transitions are effectively signaled by lighting changes, music, and, most intriguingly, voiceover of the recordings Iris and Dan have made on their days off. The latter chart their deterioration in the face of isolation and Reach’s psychological abuse almost better than the dialogue between them.
Obsession with celebrity for its own sake and the role media plays in creating serial killers are familiar concerns by now but remain important themes for social dramas such as Down the Road aspires to be. Blessing’s play, written in 1991, may be an early exploration of these intersections but unfortunately is not a very insightful one. As detached in tone as Reach himself is, the play seems oddly disengaged from its own subject. This is a shame as it mostly wastes Dreamwell’s honest efforts to bring it to dramatic life.