By Tessa Raebeck
You can grow up with your friends, live with them, even marry them, but can you ever truly know them?
This is one of many questions, perhaps unanswerable, in “Conviction,” a new play by Carey Crim that will have its world premiere Tuesday, May 27, opening the Bay Street Theatre Mainstage Season.
“In relationships, be they spouse or parent-child or friends, there is always a limit to how much we can know about another person,” said Bay Street’s new artistic director Scott Schwartz, who is directing the play.
That limit is clear in “Conviction,” the story of Tom Hodges, a beloved teacher at his local high school, who, early on in the play, is accused and convicted of having sexual relations with an underage female student.
“Conviction” stars Garret Dillahunt (“12 Years a Slave,” “Raising Hope”) as Tom Hodges. His wife Leigh is played by Sarah Paulson (“12 Years a Slave,” “American Horror Story”) and Daniel Burns (“Twelfth Night,” “Shipwrecked!”) portrays their 17-year-old son.
“These five actors are all powerhouses,” said Mr. Schwartz. “I feel so lucky to both just be in a room with them, but also to have the opportunity to bring them to Bay Street and to share their amazing talent.”
“Conviction” explores the aftermath of Tom’s fall from grace and how his wife, son and best friends struggle with whether or not they believe his claim of innocence—and how to reconcile those beliefs with their love for Tom.
“This play,” said Mr. Dillahunt, who plays Tom, “examines the possibility of relationships of all sorts surviving where there is even a kernel of doubt and distrust.”
“There are things that we individuals can just never know about the people we are with, so all we can do is live with conviction…and have belief about who they are deep inside them,” Mr. Schwartz said. “And when that conviction is challenged, when you’re forced to realize that there are things that you cannot know about the people you are in or choose to be in a relationship with, what does that do? How do you navigate that? How do you live your life—and is it possible for your relationship to survive?”
Ms. Crim came up with the idea for “Conviction” after a month of seemingly constant headlines involving inappropriate relationships between children and those in positions of authority culminated in a gig as a camp counselor, during which staff were directed against hugging campers or taking them to the bathroom without another witness present.
Although the rules made sense, she recalled her own experience as a camper climbing into her counselor’s bunk to hear ghost stories.
“Although I completely understood why we did it, it also made me a little bit sad for a more innocent time,” Ms. Crim said. “I started thinking about, putting those two things together, what has led us here?”
“I wanted to look at what it does to family and friends, who can never truly know…we can never, no matter how much we love someone, no matter if we live with that person, can we ever really truly know another human being,” she added.
Throughout the play, the viewer’s opinion on Tom can change multiple times. Ms. Crim said even her own “very strong” opinion when she began writing the play became less clear as she continued.
“Tom is the only one that really knows the truth,” explained Ms. Crim. “So, the audience is kind of in the shoes of the rest of the characters on stage, in terms of what information they get and don’t get. So, they have to take that journey—it is left up for them to decide.”
Also struggling with that decision are the actors, who remain loyal to the perceived convictions of their characters.
“I do believe that Leigh believes he is innocent,” said Ms. Paulson, adding she agrees. “But, I think part of her pragmatism lends itself to her believing what she wants to believe…She loves her husband very much and she wants to keep her family together.”
While Leigh appears loyal to her husband’s claim of innocence—and Ms. Paulson true to her character’s opinion—Ms. Reaser’s character, Jane, is burdened with doubt.
Ms. Reaser said although she is still figuring it out, she, like her character, thinks Tom is guilty.
“It’s kind of this thing that haunts her and it’s haunted her for years,” she said. “Is he guilty? Is he not guilty? And how do I reconcile that with this incredible man that I’ve always known him to be?”
“Some people can really live a duality and I find that very impressive. I think it’s important that we do know how to live a duality, because not everything is black and white,” she added. “But in Jane’s case, she really can’t straddle that line.”
“There is no template for a family on how to deal with something like this,” said Mr. Dillahunt. “Everyone is flying blind and doing the best they can. It’s a story of survival and, in the end, sometimes, things you hold dear must be sacrificed.”
Tom’s conviction comes down to he said, she said, with only the two parties involved definitively knowing the truth.
“There’s no evidence beyond that, beyond testimony—and that’s really a fascinating, scary thing about the world that we live in,” said Ms. Reaser.
“Conviction” premieres Tuesday, May 27 at 7 p.m. and runs through June 15, showing at 8 p.m. A special “Pay What You Can” ticket offer for the opening show has a limited amount of tickets available at the Box Office after 2 p.m. that day. For other tickets, visit baystreet.org or call 631-725-9500.