Serial Killers: how much of what is written about them is the basic truth and how much embellished? The number of people they claim to kill: is it accurate? Or are there more (or less) skeletons in their proverbial closet of perversity than one could ever imagine? Their motives: are they ever fully explained, or even articulated, or do they have any at all? Moreover, is there a certain part of them that would prefer to remain a paradox of an enigma sidewinding into a conundrum and completing said revolution in a riddle? This and varying other questions are explored in the Chaz Bono produced Phoenix Fire Productions’ Down the Road by Lee Blessing.
Set half in a dreary hotel room and half in a highly utilitarian interrogation cell, married journalists Dan and Iris Henniman, portrayed respectively by a tenacious Barbara Howlin and an earnest somewhat vulnerable Kyle David Pierce, interview notorious serial killer Bill Reach, brought to us by a smoldering yet smooth, Chaz Bono, resulting in the set up of two psychologies, revolving around their respective conversations in a more or less almost unintentional good cop/bad cop scenario.
Their intent: To tell Reach’s story to the world…and make a baby. But not necessarily in that order… Between initial bouts of co-sexual sustenance, the couple will interview the inmate with the objective of merely telling his story until Iris–at least–can’t help but infer that it is being spun to inaccurate and incredible effect! All the while, Reach, in his purported practice to deceive, has begun spinning his own (un)witting web of wariness betwixt the lovers as the adverse tactics they utilize in order to obtain his story cause them to realize that perhaps they have less in common than they ever thought and more about which to be at odds.
Irrespective of the aforementioned, they are initially intent upon making a baby and after their first or second prison interview, following one night of agreeable lovemaking, are successful in the endeavor and even inform Reach of their accomplishment. It is noted that Dan is hoping for a girl and somehow Iris is able to confirm his hopes regarding the matter tout de suite! Reach is also notified regarding this achievement.
During the course of cross-examinations it is discovered that Reach had a rather average childhood with no outstanding aspects of horror to chronicle: Mother married three times, a good student, B.A. in English, Masters in Business Management–Then unexpectedly quit. “Did you suddenly say to yourself, ‘I’m raping women now I’d better drop out of school?’” Dan will inquire.
“He doesn’t kill women because he doesn’t think he’s a success,” Dan muses.
No, he kills out of sexual anger,” adds Iris.
Rather than a murderer, Reach is sure to label himself a “killer” as “’murderers’ have a motive.” Killers…not so much. He admits to slaying 19 women but hints that there might be others. His reason for holding back such information is a mystery to both Dan and Iris and neither can figure out why Reach chose such a path. Is it a need of “control over everything…control over women…your mother?” And if “you raped them…did you torture them?”
“No,” Reach will answer matter-of-factly, “most people don’t torture what they hunt.” That notwithstanding, Reach will admit to keeping Paula’s corpse, his fifth victim, in his house for six days because, “I liked her.” He will later also disclose having sex with one of his cadaver’s heads.
“So you’re ashamed you had an orgasm or you didn’t?” Dan will demand of an increasingly irritated Reach.
“He could have been stripping a chair,” Iris will declare incredulously of Reach’s attitude concerning his admissions.
“I vomited in the parking lot. You will not believe what this man has done!” Dan will confess one night after arriving home from the prison.
To top all morbid allusion, this play is just weird in only the best, most haunting, textural and sometimes comedic of senses.
The couple is weird. Their analyses and reaction to the hotel room, highway and view from the room is weird. Their obsession with Reach is weird, particularly incumbent on the fact that they’ve both interviewed murderers before though admittedly never a serial killer. And oh that, “I just spent the day with Bill Reach: one of the most malevolent serial killers in the Western Hemisphere and damned if I’m not in the mood to make a baby!!!?” That just takes the cake!
The only thing providing the least bit of a string of ironic sanity derives from the expectedly unexpected insanity of Bill Reach himself!
There is a water heater on an old woman’s porch across the street from the Henniman’s hotel room about which Iris constantly obsesses. It is rusty, decrepit, and “extraterrestrial” in her eyes. I know it is symbolic of something-or-other but in light of the fact that Iris mentions men breezing in and out past the old woman (and the water heater), I can’t help but muse upon the concept that the old woman represents a passive, female version of Bill Reach in a parallel universe: The men–her victims, the water heater– death and decay, the corresponding view—an overall metaphor for the fact that neither Iris or Dan, in certain instances, can get Reach out of their heads at the end of the day. (But this is merely Yours Truly’s most Rod Serlinesque speculation. Trust me, there are others…)
The highway about which Dan stridently fixates, particularly after one too many darkly poetic powwows with Reach, seems evocative of Reach’s bloodlust *reaching* out to all the roads the nation over extending N.orth, E.ast, W.est, and S.outh yielding any and all related NEWS.
Ultimately Reach manifests in the figurative form of a phantom-like presence in Iris and Dan’s hotel room slowly rending the fabric of their union in the most eerie and peripheral of senses…
The ending is only semi-surprising because what occurs at its apex has already been foreshadowed twice during the course of the drama. Conversely if the specifics given had meant something personal to Dan and Iris wherein the play might have come full circle, that might have been a way to heighten the shock value.
In short, I felt like this was a really good first act and-a-quarter of something that could have been quite a probing, unique and exploratory unraveling of an extremely different look at a new classification of serial killer, to speak nothing of a haunted marriage. But the play ended much too abruptly to an immediate lights out such that I half expected the rolling tumbling electric organ “Intermission” solo of Monty Python’s The Holy Grail to commence playing. (And, much like the Spanish Inquisition, nobody ever saw that coming back in the 70s either.)
That said, the acting is well worth the price of admission! Barbara Howlin as the tortured and angry Iris is intensity personified. Kyle David Pierce as Dan is subtly creepy yet sympathetic, and Chaz Bono as Bill Reach is both charming and spine-chilling in all the right places (both the dark and the darker ones…)
Down the Road runs at The Lounge Theatre until August 16th.
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