BWW Reviews: Rubicon Theatre Premieres CONVICTION
Conviction/by Carey Crim/directed by Scott Schwartz/Rubicon Theatre, Ventura/through September 28
Playwright Carey Crim has a great talent for digging deep and exposing the many different layers of her characters. In Wake, her main character, an undertaker, is agoraphobic and attempting to recover from the death of her husband. She struggles to find a sense of self-worth, independence and freedom within her relationships with her mother and her teenage daughter and to accept a new love interest. In her world premiere Conviction, there's an even more critical issue facing its protagonists. Tom Hodges (Tom Astor), a high-school teacher in New Jersey, is accused of improper conduct with a female student, convicted and sent to prison for four years for a crime he may or may not have committed. His devastating struggle after release from prison is at the core of the play: a struggle to find a job and more urgently, self-worth through maintaining his relationships with his wife Leigh (Elyse Mirto), teenage son Nicholas (Daniel Burns) and friends Bruce and Jayne Wagner (Joseph Fuqua and Julie Granata), all of whom have been deeply affected by his supposed crime, some far worse than others. The friends represent only a small fraction, to be sure, of the negativity from the community at large. Heartbreaking though it is, each character must come to terms with what has happened and try to move on. The intense emotional layers that Crim unravels from all of them is astounding. Now onstage at the Rubicon Theatre in Ventura, Conviction boasts taut direction from Scott Schwartz and a superlative five-member ensemble, through September 28 only.
Tom and Leigh's teen son Nicholas feels rejected by his dad and turns to the wrong crowd and drugs after Tom is imprisoned, and when he returns, Nickie refuses to have anything to do with him. Jayne had seen the girl in question in Tom's company and when Leigh confides in Jayne some info about their past, it creates in Jayne further distrust of Tom to the extent that she no longer wishes her daughters to hang out with Nick, creating a far greater rift in the friendship between the Hodges and the Wagners. Talk about strain, but what actually exists between Tom and Leigh becomes disturbingly questionable.The Hodges hold on to each other as long as they can until Tom loses another job, and the mortgage cannot be paid.
What gives the entire play an absorbing quality is that Crim never falls into sentimentality. If we feel sorry for Tom or Leigh or Nick, it's because we get to see them in the raw with their feelings in full view, and the parents are really trying to cope and to deal with their son's problem. It's a reality that many can relate to. The issue has also remained topical among educators and is right on target as to how both adults and students do indeed change attitudes in their blind treatment of those they have heretofore respected and loved.
Under Schwartz's full throttle direction, the pacing throughout is natural and sturdy, and the actors are a dream to watch. Astor, Mirto, Burns, Granata and Fuqua approach their roles with intense, gritty involvement and never let up. Mirto makes Leigh so trusting at every turn, that we cannot help but admire her, especially at times of control when it seems she may break in two... and Fuqua's Bruce is so down.to.earth fond of his pal Tom, making excuses for Jayne's attitude - "It's the way she is!" - that his loyalty is palpable as well. Schwartz does well in displaying Nick's problems by staging him running to and from various places in the theatre, as his angst takes him away from the home.
Anna Louizos and Adam Karavatakis' set design of the middle-class home is contempo fitting and pleasant except for some plastic tubing around the kitchen area which kept catching my eye. I questioned why it is there and its appearance seems ugly, distracting.
Conviction is a well-written, well-directed and well-acted triple threat play. There is little humor due to its subject content, but the intense human interaction between the characters is so well-executed that Crim's message of uncertainty and tenuousness while testing the troubled waters of close family relationships reverberates loud and clear.