To be a vital regional theater in America, the person in charge must be willing to take chances, to mine the theatrical landscape for new works he or she believes in. Scott Schwartz, the new artistic director at the Bay Street Theatre, has done just that, and has come up with a diamond in the rough in “Conviction,” a play by Carey Crim, with Mr. Schwartz directing. It received its world premiere on Saturday night.
Tom Hodges, brilliantly played by Garret Dillahunt, is a beloved high school teacher in a contemporary middle-class community who is accused of having sex with a 16-year-old female student, then is tried and found guilty of rape. “Conviction” is a study of the aftermath of all this for Tom, his family, and his friends.
Tom’s wife Leigh, played by the wonderful Sarah Paulson, has held together hearth and family, in the person of their son, Nicholas, portrayed by an excellent young talent, Daniel Burns, as best she can while Tom is away in prison. She has been supported by Bruce and Jayne Wagner, their best friends, played by another talented duo, Brian Hutchison and Elizabeth Reaser.
Ms. Crim has a lovely cinematic style of writing that is very natural, jumping in and out of scenes, taking the audience on a journey down a dark road with Tom and Leigh.
Mr. Schwartz has put together Broadway-level talent here, both onstage and off, which is not surprising, since he is a top director. Anna Louizos’s set maximizes this small space, making it seem much larger, with several playing areas. Her work, along with that of the lighting designer Mike Billings, gives us a visually beautiful bathtub scene. Her set becomes a sixth character in the play’s journey toward its inevitable conclusion. Bart Fasbender is a gifted composer and sound designer, maintaining and propelling the mood of the piece through its several scene changes. Jessica Ford’s costumes enhance the naturalistic feel of the piece, ditto Kathy Fabian’s prop design.
Mr. Schwartz has helped this stellar cast find the nuances, and, so important in a dark play, the humor.
This is, at essence, a ghost story. These are characters haunted by the past, the present, and each other.
The play starts with a scene that serves as a prequel. Ms. Crim holds up a mirror to the audience, creating educated, upper middle class characters. Mr. Dillahunt does a remarkable job creating, essentially, two characters, two men with very different worldviews. We see his passion for his work in the beginning and his emptiness afterward.
The second scene begins the play’s true journey, with Ms. Paulson’s beautifully created Leigh seeking something she can never have: certitude. She has desperately kept the worldview of her husband outside the four walls of her home. But those walls are pierced by her friend Jayne, the only character in the play who does have certitude, as well as by anonymous callers who threaten and taunt Leigh. Ms. Paulson plays Leigh beautifully, allowing her to go to the emotional edge without falling off.
Mr. Hutchison’s Bruce is a great buddy for Tom, and together they give us one of the funniest scenes in the show in the second act, as they return from a basketball game, allowing the audience to exhale. Ms. Crim has a wonderful sense of humor, and, when she revisits this piece, she may want to add a couple of more moments like that in the second act.
Ms. Reaser, who is a fine actress, has a tough assignment (are there any easy ones here?). Because Jayne is the only character with a sense of sureness, she is frequently the driving force onstage.
Mr. Burns is a dynamo of talent, as he does several transitions in the show.
“Twenty-three-and-a-half hours of the day, I’m sure,” Leigh tells Tom toward the end of the play. “But there are other times, those lone moments that manage to burrow in like a tick,” she says, concluding, “When I’m in that doubting place, I hate myself for loving you.”
In this production on opening night, the first scene seemed quite peppy, a little too much so. That may be in the writing, or it may be in the acting, but a little less would be a lot more. Things settled down in the second scene, and really took off in the lovely third scene between Tom and Leigh, when you hear the most potent tool a playwright or an actor has: silence.
Again, this is a diamond in the rough. It needs some cutting and polishing. It runs right now a little over two hours with one intermission. There are three other theatrical entities involved as producers here, the Rubicon Theater in California, Dead Posh Productions in London, and the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre in Canada, where surely this exciting new play will continue its journey toward its final form.