Stanton Wood rescues yesterday’s tabloid headlines from the mill of TV movies, turning the story of Susan Smith into an uneven but powerful new play, “Down the Drain.” Smith is the woman from North Carolina who drowned her two young sons then falsely charged an African-American man of having kidnapped them. Wood’s voice possesses just the right stridency of pitch to give life to an infanticidal supermarket-checkout mother, called Annie Wilson for the purposes of this play.
At its best, “Down the Drain” recalls the delinquent heroine of “Getting Out,” and as with Marsha Norman’s play, two actresses on occasion play the same character, although for Annie Wilson there is never any hope of getting out. “Down the Drain” is strong and uncompromising when it sticks to the story of a woman who, at age 8, watched as her father blew his brains out, experienced her own bouts with suicide as a teenager, was sexually abused by a stepfather, had an abortion against her will at 17, and in quick succession used men as rampantly as they made use of her. It’s some history, and Wood tells the story with the clear head of a dramatist who has no use for psychobabble explanations. Likewise, Tami Dixon’s take on Annie Wilson is chilling in this actor’s brutal refusal to color her portrayal with one bathetic brushstroke.
In act one of “Down the Drain,” Annie expresses only two ambitions: to become an astrologer and to get laid. She succeeds very effectively at the latter with a string of four men: a married grocery-store manager (Arthur Aulisi), a young clerk who becomes her tender but none too understanding husband (Zach Shaffer), another married employer (Nick Phelps) and his son (Aulisi). As one of them puts it, “Annie would sleep with a loaf of bread if she thought it would give her a hug afterwards.”
The way Dixon plays Annie, suffocation is more like it. Later, another sex partner — the word “lover” gives the guy way too much credit — tells her good-bye by saying, “You should wash your hands more often. They smell like dirty diapers.”
Director Paul Zablocki makes sure the men who stream in and out of Annie’s life don’t descend into caricature. Even in North Carolina, there is a God sometimes: Her ex-husband wants to celebrate a wedding anniversary long after their divorce. An employer thinks they should start calling each other Mr. and Mrs. when he learns Annie has also slept with his son. As husband and boss, Shaffer and Phelps bring especially nuanced touches to their respective roles.
Zablocki makes do with only seven actors, despite having to put over two dozen characters onstage. In one instance, the tripling up of personas creates a coup de theater that, again, is brilliant in its sheer refusal to make easy sense: Phelps, not a small man, plays Annie’s young son William as well as Dana Collins, the stepfather who molested her, and Orville Skimpers, the employer who shares her sexually with his own son. Once “Down the Drain” gets going, Phelps’ every entrance becomes increasingly suspenseful.
In act two, Wood displays larger ambitions, and unfortunately his cut-in-granite portrait of Annie Wilson loses some of its hard edges as the drama devolves into a docudrama. The townspeople begin to speak out against Annie, and not so surprising, their 60-second speeches delivered directly to the audience seem like nothing more than fatuous sound bites on such subjects as racism and media overkill. Occasionally, a roving narrator comes out to tell us, “Annie fails her lie detector test” or “Daniel is about to discover the children are dead by watching television.”
Chris Jones’ very gray multilevel set with fern-and-leaf embroidery isn’t pretty to look at, but its many playing areas suit the story. Effectively, center stage is reserved for act two’s big car-into-the-lake climax. A few scenes later, after her tortured confession in a church, Annie descends into the same centerstage drowning pool to write letters to her two dead sons from prison. As with her murdered children, she doesn’t get out alive.