The world premiere of Conviction, the first show of Bay Street Theater’s summer season and the first production directed by new artistic director Scott Schwartz, is a challenging and often downbeat work by Carey Crim.
A dark family drama that doesn’t provide its characters or the audience with easy answers or solutions, Conviction will likely be the subject of much discussion after the final bow.
In the opening minutes of Conviction, the audience is introduced to Tom Hodges (Garret Dillahunt), a handsome, charismatic English teacher with a lovely wife, Leigh (Sarah Paulson), and happy adolescent son, Nicholas (Daniel Burns), as well as their friends, Bruce (Brian Hutchison) and Jayne (Elizabeth Reaser). Tom has just directed a successful high school production of Romeo and Juliet, and rumor has it he’s going to be nominated for Educator of the Year—until he’s accused of sexual misconduct with one of his students.
Four years later, Tom is released from prison and comes home to a tired Leigh and angry Nicholas, while Bruce tries to be supportive. Leigh and Bruce believe in Tom’s innocence, but Jayne struggles with the idea that her friend and neighbor is now a convicted sex offender. The four-year time leap occurs so early in the play that it’s jarring to relate to the characters at first; we’re barely introduced to these people before witnessing their deepest turmoil, but this is clearly Crim’s intention. The question raised in Conviction is not about whether or not Tom had sex with a student. Instead, Crim implores the audience to have compassion for all involved and ask themselves if they’d be able to stand by someone who’s been accused of such a despicable crime.
The world of the play is grounded in reality—Crim’s characters feel like people we know. If there’s a flaw in Crim’s intense script, it’s that there’s very little forward motion in early scenes. Frequent blackouts break up the action, causing the play to meander a bit. The second act is stronger, fleshing out ideas touched upon early in the script, such as the increasingly strict boundaries teachers have when interacting with their students, deciding when it’s appropriate to discipline our children for their behavior and other potent, contemporary issues.
Strong performances anchor the production. Tom is instantly likable, played by Dillahunt with an assured but compassionate air. Burns shows us a vulnerable, lost teenager we’ve all known at some point. Hutchison’s Bruce provides the play with several welcome moments of levity and warmth. Reaser has the unenviable position of presenting a realistic, judgmental woman who seems to be the only adult willing to explore the notion that Tom may in fact be guilty. Paulson plays Leigh with a raw honesty that makes us hope that she’s made the right decision by standing by her husband. There’s no weak link among the actors, but it’s Paulson who makes the strongest impression. Her Leigh is stoic to a fault, making her few emotionally explosive moments all the more heartbreaking.
The sharp scenic design by Anna Louizos presents a multi-level set that’s believable as an upper-middle class home. The set works just as well in the beginning of the play, when the characters are happy and comfortable, as it does later, when financial troubles cause the Hodges to scale down their lifestyle. Original music by Bart Fasbender, moody guitar pieces heard between scenes, fill the work with a poignant, melancholy ambiance.
Conviction is a provocative opening to the main stage season at Bay Street. You may not like some of the characters, and the script is at times uncompromisingly dark, but Schwartz and his talented cast have succeeded in bringing an interesting new drama to the East End.
Conviction runs through June 15 at Bay Street Theater. For tickets and more information, call 631-725-9500 or go to baystreet.org.