Your father believed in innocent by necessity," kindly but dimwitted Officer Gabe tells ten-year-old Isaac, the narrator of Dan Rubin's Demons...(and Other Blunt Objects) early on. Gabe explains "innocent by necessity" through the example of a hungry man stealing food, or an addict stealing to support his habit: Yes, a crime has been committed, but you can't really fault the criminal. Gabe offers this theory to the youngster in a graveyard where Isaac's new best friend has just been buried. Isaac's father, Adam, an ex-marine, is the killer.
Gabe's clumsy comfort is something of signpost for the rest of the evening. Rubin tells the tale of how Adam became a murderer through Isaac's eyes, and through flashback. This double-blind approach to the story, filtering the action through the psyche of a ten-year-old who jumps back and forth from the present moment to the recent past to just before he was born, is a cumbersome narrative technique. Director Anna Pileggi makes good use of an overhead screen that denotes details of time and place, aiding the audience in placing where and when the characters are. It helps, as the set is a minimal double-stepped riser with few props. But it also undercuts the momentum of this production by HotCity Theatre Company's GreenHouse offshoot, forcing characters and audience to edge toward the precipice and then pull back.
Isaac (Kelly Riley) addresses the audience directly from the onset, announcing in a formal tone that recalls the language of fable and myth that this is a story of "monsters." Isaac suspects his father is a werewolf; Adam (Christopher Hickey, who also portrays Gabe, as well as Michael and Dr. R) is actually a Vietnam vet who suffers from flashbacks and delusions that the family is besieged by invisible demons. Mary (Louise Edwards), Isaac's mother, is drawn and tired, fatigued by her husband's long nightmare and her role as the family's bulwark. Once she was defiant and determined, a war protester at Kent State; now she's as damaged as her husband, just not as demonstrative about it.
The script slams scenes of Adam and Mary's blossoming love up against their later moments of anger and frustration. Edwards limberly makes the leap, often with only seconds to prepare for the launch. The courtship scenes overcome some clumsy dialogue mostly thanks to the charming bravado she puts behind the banter. It's easy to see why Adam is drawn to her, and her eventual breakdown is all the more powerful because it's her singular spirit, not her mind, that has been shattered.
Hickey delivers a nuanced performance despite having to flesh out four characters and chart Adam's slow-motion breakdown. Some transitions came across rougher than others, with faint traces of the previous character still visible in the new one. But Hickey quickly shifts gears, often within a few lines. Adam is the most well-defined of his roles, but as Michael, the father of the slain boy, Hickey's exhilarating. He portrays Michael as detached and clinical; he's lost his son, and he's losing his mind. When Michael confronts Mary and Isaac at gunpoint in their living room, the site of so many other family nightmares, he abruptly loses his detachment, his voice breaking achingly into a ragged shout on the words "he destroyed my son." This son who's never seen is suddenly very much present, a weight strangling Hickey's voice and slumping his shoulders. At least one person in the audience gasped in the void that followed.
Riley is hampered by the declamatory nature of his role, but when given the chance to step into the role of Isaac, he does a good job capturing the elegant simplicity of a child's perspective. In his slack-faced defense of his mother in Michael's presence, we see the first hints of the monster that consumed his father.
It is the performances that elevate Demons above the script's shortcomings. It's not an easy play to re-emerge from the theater was hushed when the lights came up, and people filed out quietly. But the muted conversation as patrons returned to the actual present proved that we were all making our way back from the brink, even if Adam and Mary couldn't.
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