In 1965 a teenage girl and her polio riddled sister entered the Indianapolis home of Gertrude Baniszewski. As the landscape of America radically shifts with the Vietnam War, civil rights movement and the Beatles, the reality of this 16-year-old girl also dramatically changes, she is systematically tortured for three months by the woman who was suppose to take care of her and her sister. Baniszewski also enlists neighborhood kids and her own children to assist in the torture. On October 26, the young girl died of a brain hemorrhage, shock and malnutrition; her name was Sylvia Likens.
Just in time for Halloween, Axis Company resurrects the spirit of Sylvia Likens and the events surrounding her death in Down There. From the moment you receive the program (a blank white sheet with the words “down there” written in lowercase and outlined in red crayon) the awareness that the production will not be a regular night at the theatre becomes heightened. Down There is playwright Randy Sharp’s chilling, dark multimedia showcase of an individual’s spiraling descent into madness and violence. Although the play is based on the torture and murder of Sylvia Likens, the plot mainly centers on Pat Menckl (Gertrude Baniszewski). A sickly, unhappy woman, Pat Menckl and her boyfriend Frank appear to be on the edge of destruction and the hint of abuse is apparent in the opening scene. Her kids Jim and Paula and Rickie and John (the other teenagers entrusted to her care) are the poster children for dysfunction. This thrown-together family unit appears to be experts on the trickle down theory – Frank humiliates Pat who demeans Paula who degrades John. The only time the audience is presented with some modicum of family harmony is when forced smiles are presented as Casey Kindens (Sylvia Likens) and her sister Joyce are dropped off and later when Casey becomes the object of their abuse.
Pat is woman who has clearly grown up and lived “the hard way.” Her frail figure, red lipstick and vacant eyes look more macabre under the naked spotlight and she wears her dysphoria like a church frock. Casey’s bubbly, talkative personality not only clashes with Pat’s “misery loves company” approach, but seems to set Pat on her path of terrorism. She seems hell-bent on breaking Casey’s spirit and showing her the harsh reality of life. The violence Casey endures in the basement of the Menckl home is not graphic, but the suggestions of torture coupled with visions of Casey’s innocent smile on the monitor and her voice as she recites a note she is forced to write her parents explaining her bruises, haunt the audience with the reality of Casey’s demise.
The cast is comprised of Axis Company members; they deliver fright better than any modern horror flick. Laurie Kilmartin portrayal of Pat combines all the elements of a villainess – she is Mrs. Bates, Mrs. Voorhees and Cruella De Vil rolled into one. Lynn Mancinelli gives a convincing depiction of the Casey, her naivety and her eagerness to make the best of her situation is as compelling as her smile. David Crabb and Brian give the scariest performance in this production as Rickie and John. The willingness to participate in Casey’s torture and the fiendish pleasure they take in doing so tingles the skin with itches that cannot be stratched. Britt Genelin and Jim Sterling are equally as troubling as Paula and Frank. They give stark portraits of unbalanced people. The set displays a dreary home and the mute Joyce, played by Regina Betancourt, becomes part of the bleak backdrop. Her somber disposition and unwillingness to speak adds another layer of torture to this production.
Morbid and uncomfortable to witness Down There leaves the audience without a cathartic experience or sense of understanding as they rise from their seats. Other than the fact of pure lunacy, the reason for their heinous acts remains a mystery. But what is clear is that sometimes what lurks below a smile and display of normalcy can be a beehive festering with evil – a thought more disturbing than the boogeyman under the bed but necessary to know. Down There will be playing at Axis Company, located at 1 Sheridan Square, until October 30.
Photos courtesy of Axis Company