“Conviction” is the flip side of “Doubt” — in more than a semantic sense.
Carey Crim’s promising new drama about a high school teacher accused of sexual misconduct shares some obvious thematic DNA with John Patrick Shanley’s 2004 take on child abuse and the Catholic Church, but “Conviction” charts a more secular course with a mature theatrical voice and perspective all its own.
Developed under a new works program at Ventura’s Rubicon Theatre, its full premiere staging by co-directors Scott Schwartz and Katie Lindsay impresses with a thoughtful, layered exploration of topical controversies while adhering for the most part to the naturalistic scope of how people actually talk and behave.
Crim, whose offbeat mortuary comedy “Wake” made its L.A. debut earlier this year, sets “Conviction” in a more conventional suburban home, where we meet popular English teacher Tom (Tom Astor) celebrating the opening of the school play he directed — a triumph that proves short-lived when his underage lead actress claims statutory rape.
After an abrupt leap past the resulting trial, the symbolic weight of the play’s title emerges with Tom’s humiliating homecoming after serving a four-year prison sentence.
Whether Tom is actually a predator or a victim of his own self-righteous hubris remains deliberately murky — the play’s real focus is on the collateral damage that society’s presumption of guilt inflicts on those closest to him. During his incarceration, steadfastly loyal wife Leigh (a superb Elyse Mirto) has been losing her single-income battle to avoid slipping through the middle-class safety net.
Their once happy-go-lucky teenage son Nick (Daniel Burns) has tumbled into sullen emo rebellion; that his furious outbursts ring true without recourse to precocious wisdom is a credit to Crim’s keenly observant dialogue.
Similar realism extends to family friends (Joseph Fuqua, Julie Granata) with convincingly divided views about Tom’s guilt. Crim’s underlying question throughout is how to navigate a world of uncertainty without lapsing into moral relativism.
Tom’s ambiguity poses a unique performance challenge that isn’t entirely solved here. Rather than keeping him enigmatic for much of the play, a more likable presence could engage sympathy sooner without precluding his possible crime (see Miller, A: “All My Sons”).
Currently, the piece gains its full emotional footing only once we come to see Tom and Leigh as two people who genuinely care for each other, trying to bridge a chasm of severed trust.
“Conviction,” Rubicon Theatre, 1006 E. Main St., Ventura. 2 and 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Sept. 28. $25-$49. (805) 667-2900 or www.rubicontheatre.org. Running time: 2 hours.