A Drain-ing Experience: The adobe theatre company Gets Serious

Special Features   A Drain-ing Experience: The adobe theatre company Gets Serious
Although there's no character named Susan Smith in Down the Drain, the latest offering from Off-Off-Broadway's cagey and innovative adobe theatre company [lower-case spelling, theirs], it's clear from the onset that that modern-day Medea is the source material of the play.

Although there's no character named Susan Smith in Down the Drain, the latest offering from Off-Off-Broadway's cagey and innovative adobe theatre company [lower-case spelling, theirs], it's clear from the onset that that modern-day Medea is the source material of the play.

It begins with a woman (played by Tami Dixon) sobbing uncontrollably and describing to a police officer how a black man forced her out of her car and drove off with her two young sons still inside. The first act chronicles the stunted and often unhappy life of Annie Wilson prior to that incident. Then as the police investigate and the family waits for news in Act II, Annie confesses to having sent her car and her boys plummeting into a lake.

The actions of Smith, the South Carolina woman who is serving life in prison for the 1994 drowning deaths of her children, unnerved and mystified many, including author Stanton Wood, who tried to make sense of the ghastly crime by exploring it dramatically in a graduate playwriting seminar at Carnegie Mellon University five years ago.

"I just felt it was so easy to think of her as a monster, but the truth was far more disturbing," says Wood, a California native who works as a creative director for a computer game company in Massachusetts. "If she's not a monster, then that's a lot scarier. Partly I wrote the play to really understand why she did it, and I feel like I answered that question for the character I created, but I don't know that I'll ever know the answer for her."

Abandoned by her father and sexually abused by her stepfather, Annie is starved for affection. She floats from one man to the next, having affairs with married bosses and tying the knot after she becomes pregnant. When the union dissolves, Annie takes up with a carouser who has a phobia for kids. As one character puts it, "She'd sleep with a loaf of bread if she thought it would give her a hug afterwards." Her world spirals out of control after he dumps her, but the character comes across as a caring parent. Why would a woman like this kill her children instead of perhaps committing suicide? "I think that the children were her on some level," Wood posits, "and that she did the most hurtful thing to herself that she could -- and that wasn't killing herself."

Although director Paul Zablocki has been intertwined with Down the Drain since its genesis, his view of the Smith situation is at the opposite end of the spectrum from the author's: "She is a monster, and they do live among us."

Just prior to his involvement in the play, Zablocki, then a grad student in Carnegie Mellon's directing program, had directed a segment of Medea for school and was curious to explore further why a mother would kill her children.

"I know that Stan would probably think that any one of us could be Susan Smith," he says, when the subject of their contrasting views comes up. "I personally don't feel that way, but in directing the play I see his point and I enjoy the moral ambiguity of it. And Stan was really interested in exploring the themes of not only why does someone do something like this, but also how can you live with this afterwards."

In the case of Annie, the answer is not very well. Imprisoned and under suicide watch, she's a wreck of a woman, scribbling letters to her sons asking for their forgiveness. Interspersed with scenes from her life are a series of monologues from people who knew her or were affected by her story. One woman reveals having had murderous feelings toward her own child and thanks God for stopping her.

For audiences accustomed to adobe's whimsical and quirky take on everything from fairy tales to Pirandello, Down the Drain is a conspicuous departure, but it has some adobe trademarks: short scenes and a small cast with an abundance of costume changes. Seven actors -- Arthur Aulisi, Dixon, Guiesseppe Jones, Janice O'Rourke, Nick Phelps, Molly Renfroe and Zach Shaffer -- take on 25 roles. Although releases have described the play as "darkly comic," another Adobe tradition, the tone is earnest and thoughtful.

When it received its first staged reading back at Carnegie Mellon, "it was a lot more satiric a play, a little bit more irreverent," remembers Zablocki, who recently co-founded an Off-Off-Broadway theatre company called The Assembly. "The event had just happened, and it seemed like the right tone for the time. Over the years, after different readings, Stan decided to get rid of most of the satiric stuff and just concentrate on the actual story, and it seemed to work better."

Rather than composing the play on his own, Wood, whose previous work The Resurrectionists was produced by adobe in its first season, developed it through a series of improv sessions. The author, Zablocki and five actors (one of whom, Shaffer, plays Annie's husband, Daniel, in the adobe production) met once a week for three hours over the course of two months. Once they'd familiarized themselves with the Smith case, Zablocki gave the actors a situation and a conflict. They would improvise a scene while Wood took notes. When he returned from a school break, he had a 130-page play in tow, Zablocki recalls.

"[The improvs] really influenced the direction of the play," Wood says. "A big one [concerned] the Daniel and Annie relationship as being something that shows just how interconnected we all are and how when we do something it affects the people around us."

Wood, who's currently working on a screenplay for a New York production company and another play ("thank God, it's a comedy") remembers receiving an "A" for the course. After a beat he adds dryly, "If Bruce Weber had been grading me, I'm sure I would have gotten an `F,'" referring to the New York Times critic who reviewed the production. The notice frustrated Zablocki "because I felt [he] didn't see the show that I directed, or chose not to. It's like he thought he was coming to see a comedy."

And it was a rare negative notice for adobe, which has been a critics' delight in recent years. But Zablocki was roused by a response of a very vocal audience shortly after the review came out.

"They were listening so hard that a lot of times I heard people say things like, `bitch,' or moan when the husband was on the phone with his mistress," he says. "There was one guy who was so edgy I thought he was going to fall out of his seat. And that's exciting to me. What more could I ask for?"

-- Diane Snyder

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