A long-married suburban couple and their seventeen-year-old son attempt to survive the aftermath of a terrible, life-destroying accusation in Carey Crim’s powerful, provocative new play Conviction, which though still in need of work, receives an outstanding World Premiere co-production at Ventura’s Rubicon Theatre.
It’s hard to discuss Conviction without revealing a major plot point, so for those who’d rather not have that surprise spoiled, I suggest reading no further (and skipping the playwright’s and dramaturg’s notes included in the production’s program) until after the show.
At the very least, you will be guaranteed a gripping, gorgeously acted evening of contemporary theater, after which you can check out what’s been written about Conviction and decide whether or not you are in agreement about what’s missing from Crim’s script and what still needs tweaking.
As for those who don’t mind a spoiler or two, read on.
When first we meet Tom and Leigh Hodges (Tom Astor and Elyse Mirto), they seem to be leading charmed lives, he a popular high school drama teacher, she a busy health care worker, their son an untroubled boy just turned teenager.
Then comes a phone call from Tom’s principal that will change their lives forever.
Cut to four years later and the day of Tom’s release from prison following a year-long-trial and three years of incarceration for a crime Tom steadfastly maintains he did not commit—that of sexual misconduct with the then fifteen-year-old student playing Romeo’s Juliet under Tom’s direction.
Welcoming Tom home are Leigh, doing her best to stay afloat both emotionally and financially, and the couple’s best friends Bruce and Jayne (Joseph Fuqua and Julie Granata), with whom Tom and Leigh had been celebrating R&J’s opening when the phone rang that fateful night.
It soon becomes clear that Jayne does not share Leigh’s conviction that Tom has been unfairly jailed, and that even if Bruce does, as a red-blooded heterosexual man, he could certainly understand if his fellow teacher had crossed the professional and legal line given how little the fifteen-year-old accuser looked “like a girl.”
As for Tom and Leigh’s son Nicholas (Daniel Burns), the boy’s head-to-toe black (including his now punkishly cropped-and-dyed hair) are but the exterior manifestations of an outcast teen unable to hope that his life will ever, in any way, “get better.”
Over the course of several months, Conviction involves us in these five altered lives while keeping us in the dark about the truth or falsehood of “that girl’s” accusations and on the edge of our seats as a result. (The playwright could easily have called her play Doubt had John Patrick Shanley not already preempted that title.)
Crim’s dialog is so authentic, her characters so richly drawn, and the performances on the Rubicon stage so compelling that it’s only after Conviction’s final fadeout that doubts about the play’s overall effectiveness begin to sink in.
First and foremost is the curious fact that no one asks Tom for a detailed description of what actually happened the evening in question, or more to the point, for an explanation as to why his student would have made (and stuck with) such a terrible accusation. Who was this girl and what exactly was their relationship? The question is not even raised.
Much time is spent discussing “age of consent” and not nearly enough on the morality of teacher-student, mentor-mentee romantic/sexual relationships, or the reality that while sexual activity with a minor can send the accused to jail, any accusation of impropriety can destroy a teaching career regardless of the alleged victim’s age.
Conviction having already received the first half of its two-part World Premiere at the Hamptons’ Bay Street Theatre this past June, it’s surprising that these omissions remain, though it’s certainly not too late to address them.
More minor concerns could also stand looking at. Crim’s characters would seem to exist in a world without Caller ID, the first thing a person would look at and pay attention to when harassing phone calls begin to arrive. Jayne’s just happening to have been at Tom’s school to witness a certain occurrence is too conveniently coincidental as written. And no playwright should end Act One with a mysterious phone call if it’s intended only to be a red herring.
None of these fixable concerns should stop theatergoers in search of edge-of-your-seat drama from seeing Conviction, certainly not in a production that features such powerful performances as those being given by Astor, Mirto, Fuqua, and Granata, with Mirto in particular commanding the stage with her gut-wrenching star turn as a woman struggling to keep her life together … and to believe.
As for Burns, it’s easy to see why director Scott Schwartz brought the gifted young New York-based actor from Conviction’s Sag Harbor debut to join its otherwise freshly cast West Coast incarnation. His performance is so raw and riveting, you will not soon forget it.
Katie Lindsay co-directs the Ventura half of Conviction’s World Premiere, with Katharine Farmer assisting the directors.
In addition to Schwartz and Burns, the Rubicon has also (with one exception) imported Conviction’s New York-based production design team—scenic designer Anna Louizos and her associate Adam Karavatis, sound designer/composer Bart Fasbender, costume designer Jessica Ford, and lighting designer Mike Billings, and their work is first-rate, as is the production’s sole local designer, Rubicon stalwart T. Theresa Scarano. Stage manager Jessie Vacchiano has been brought west from New York to the Rubicon as well, making this a hybrid of visiting and local production.
Despite its flaws, Conviction held me enthralled from its deceptively buoyant opening scene to its impactful final fadeout.
One thing is certain. You’ll be thinking and talking about Conviction long after its superb cast has taken their well-deserved bows.
Rubicon Theatre, 1006 E. Main Street, Ventura.
September 6, 2014
Photos: Jeanne Tanner