REVIEW BY CARY GINELL
“My faith in him is all he has left,” says Leigh Hodges of her husband Tom, an upstanding, respected high school English and drama teacher who has been accused of having an illicit affair with a 15-year-old female drama student. This is the crux of Carey Crim’s riveting play, Conviction, which shows how a comfortable life and a happy marriage can be easily destroyed.
Conviction is on the last leg of a three-city world premiere tour that began at the Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor, New York, continued to the Royal Manitoba Theatre Center in Manitoba, Canada, and is now concluding at the Rubicon Theatre Company in Ventura. The show has garnered high praise from theater critics and audiences for its highly affecting rendering of the corrosiveness of suspicion and doubt in the story. It is the kind of play where audiences want to stay after the show is over and discuss it, because there are no clear-cut answers to the dilemma faced by Tom Hodges.
The story focuses not on the crime itself, but the aftermath of the crime. The Hodgeses and their best friends, Bruce and Jayne Wagner, are celebrating Tom’s successful high school production of Romeo & Juliet when a phone call from Tom’s principal interrupts their merrymaking. Blackout. When the lights come on again, Tom is returning home after spending four years in prison. Crim skillfully fills in the details in the ensuing scenes as we begin to realize the horrific act that Tom has been accused and convicted of.
The play doesn’t deal with whether or not Tom actually committed the act, but the changing dynamics of his fractured relationships; with his wife, his teenage son Nick, and his best friends. The play is unique because of its depiction of Tom; he is not an ordinary man caught in extraordinary circumstances, as is the case in so many Alfred Hitchcock films. Tom is extraordinary himself; beloved by his family and friends, and respected by his peers. He is a fount of knowledge, and appears to have a reasoned or educated answer to just about anything posed by his friends and family. He’s not a know-it-all; he just knows a lot. Tom has apparently gotten used to this status of universal respect and admiration. When he returns from prison, the thing he misses most isn’t his wife, his son, or his comfortable upper-middle suburban life, it’s that he misses mattering to people.
After returning home, Tom is banned from appearing on his school’s grounds, receives anonymous hang-up phone calls at home, and struggles to find work. He ends up taking on a job as a janitor, which only marginally restores his self-esteem. In addition to the financial struggles that ensue from this, Tom has to deal with Leigh, who is his biggest supporter, yet is one who can’t fully convince herself that Tom did not do what victim, judge, and jury said he did. “For 23 1/2 hours of every day, I’m sure,” she tells him. It’s that other half-hour that causes her to lose sleep, lose control over her son’s activities, and stay at arm’s length from Tom. The play’s title reflects not only the outcome of the trial that incarcerated Tom, but Leigh’s personal and loyal “conviction” of his innocence. Tom’s innocence or guilt is kept ambiguous by Crim; we are supposed to make up our own minds as to whether or not his conviction was justified, so we, too, have to go on faith, as Crim’s astute and subtle portrait of Tom makes us even more unsettled as to what to actually believe.
Tom Astor is sympathetic and attractive as Tom Hodges; he continues to be extremely likable throughout the play. For the play to work, he has to be. We, as the audience, desperately want to believe that Tom wouldn’t and didn’t take advantage of the well-endowed, attractive student (who we never see) who plays Juliet in Tom’s production.
Elyse Mirto turns in a stunning performance as Leigh. Tortured and divided as to how she feels about Tom, she compiles a scrapbook of the trial that she constantly examines, hoping to convince herself that the verdict was unjust. “Teach me how to believe,” she implores him. “I wish I could,” he frustratingly replies. A lesser man would have cracked, as his world crumbles around him, but Tom’s intelligence and resolve get him through, and somehow, he is able to function. Although he returns from prison in a daze, humbled by his experience in prison, he eventually becomes his former self ; confident, wise-cracking, and in love with Leigh. Mirto’s nuanced performance, however, as the loyal and loving wife who can’t bring herself to fully believe in Tom’s innocence, stands out above all the others.
Joseph Fuqua plays Tom’s best buddy Bruce, a history teacher at Tom’s school whose faith in Tom doesn’t seem to have wavered since Tom’s incarceration. He only expresses a morbid curiousity about what Tom went through in prison. Bruce’s wife Jayne, however, is a different matter. Beautifully played by Julie Granata, Jayne agrees with the verdict and Tom’s guilt, and in an astonishing and uncomfortable scene, confronts him about it. She is clearly repelled by him, and her feelings threaten her friendship with Leigh as well.
The character most affected by Tom’s imprisonment, however, is Nick, the Hodges’ teenage son. Crim displays him in the opening scene as a typical teenager, eager and wide-eyed, wearing bright colors, and a whimsically reversed baseball cap as he grabs breakfast and rushes off to school. After his father’s return, we see a startling change in Nick. He is sullen and withdrawn, has a punk haircut and pierced lip, and has taken to smoking pot in his room, wearing gothic black, and experimenting with crystal meth. Daniel Burns is so good in his portrayal of Nick’s transformation that it is hard to believe it is the same actor. Like Leigh, Nick wants to believe in his father, but has been bullied in school and has shut himself off from his family.
Anna Louizos’ functional set design of the Hodges’ home is highlighted by strange, transparent plastic ceiling tubing that creates an unsettling aura of instability. Director Scott Schwartz is also artistic director at the Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor, where Conviction got its first showing this past summer. Conviction is an intelligently written, emotionally charged study of how sometimes, there are no clear-cut answers regarding guilt or innocence.
Conviction plays through September 28 at the Rubicon Theatre Company. For ticket information, dates, and showtimes, see the VC On Stage Calendar.