Interrogation Room written by local playwright and Road Less Traveled Theatre Productions co-founder Jon Elston debuted as RLTP’s second offering back in 2003. It’s back in season 16, and remains a true edge-of-your-seat drama, very worthy of its 2004 Artie Award for Outstanding New Play. Frankly, it deserves more.
Set in (you guessed it) the interrogation room at the local police headquarters, this four-hander is all about the dialogue and the intense conversations between police and those accused (or not) of a horrific crime: an 11 year old girl is raped and murdered in her own home. Who would do such a thing? Her parents and older sister are white, and her older adopted brother is black. The family lives in refined neighborhood where murder doesn’t happen…and white parents adopting a black son may not always be embraced.
Mikey (played by Dave Tyrik) is the son in the interrogation room hot seat. Detective Bremen (John Vines and Detective Janetty (Nick Stevens) are assigned to the case. Janetty is convinced that they have their man, but Bremen isn’t sure. Mikey’s statement has some holes in it and while he’s cooperative, something isn’t coming together.
But did Mikey murder his pretty little sister Ashley or not?
It’s all about the psychology of the investigation here; the proverbial good cop bad cop ballet where they dance to extract a confession from a question-weary subject. But Mikey has more to hide; he’s a young black man raised by white parents, afterall, and disappointing them is not something he is wont to do. But this white detective isn’t like his folks, there’s an animosity here that Mikey doesn’t understand, and the black detective – the authority figure who reminds him to sit up straight and dignified – commands his respect based on the race they have in common.
Neighbor Gordon Peck – craftily played by Matt Witten – insists on visiting the interrogation room; he is sure that Mikey is guilty. He is certain beyond doubt that he saw the young suspect entering the home in a suspicious manner. And he would know that declaratively, observing this on his carefully timed nightly walk around the neighborhood he professes to love and wants to protect.
Director Scott Behrend had the winning combination here: a robust, relevant, layered story and four solid actors who wrapped themselves around Elston’s words. Tyrick captures Mikey’s ‘I’m guilty of something but not murder’ nuances to a t. Stevens (last season’s Elvis in MusicalFare’s Million Dollar Quartet) balances Janetty’s love of family with his tough-talking streetwise need to have justice served now. Vines’ calm simmers low and slow throughout his performance. It’s amazing that he stepped into this role with only 17 days to prepare after two other actors bowed out. His occasional dropped lines and tiny fumbles are very forgivable and almost play into his character’s struggle to find the right words at the right time. His last scene is pure triumph – perfectly underplayed and extraordinarily powerful.
It’s Witten – who played Janetty in 2003 – that stands out. He is the smarmy guy you love to hate, with his entitled pedigree and smug attitude. He’ll remind you of the way Jeremy Irons played Clau von Bulow in the 1990 film Reversal of Fortune. Like Claus, he has plenty to hide: watch his jumpy leg and twitchy pinky finger. That’s the kind of physical cues the cops observe when your words and your actions aren’t coming together. Witten is deliciously wicked, cunning, contemptible.
Elston’s story is character- and dialogue-driven with intensity and fire. He creates a mood – against Dyan Burlingame’s stark set – that makes our need to live in a socially just world very real. We want to fight for it, like Bremen and Janetty so the Mikeys and Ashleys never have to be victims again. Interrogation Room runs until November 24. It’s an emotional two hours and some change (including intermission), and well worth it. Tickets and details here.