‘Downstate’ review

Theatre, Drama
4 out of 5 stars
5 out of 5 stars
(2user reviews)
 (© Michael Brosilow)
© Michael Brosilow Francis Guinan (Fred), ensemble member Glenn Davis (Gio), Celilia Noble (Ivy), Eddie Torres (Felix) and ensemble member K. Todd Freeman (Dee)
 (© Michael Brosilow)
© Michael BrosilowFrancis Guinan (Fred) and K. Todd Freeman (Dee)
 (© Michael Brosilow)
© Michael BrosilowCecilia Noble (Ivy), ensemble member K. Todd Freeman (Dee) and Eddie Torres (Felix)
 (© Michael Brosilow)
© Michael BrosilowMatilda Ziegler (Em) and ensemble member Tim Hopper (Andy)
 (© Michael Brosilow)
© Michael BrosilowK. Todd Freeman (Dee)
 (© Michael Brosilow)
© Michael BrosilowFrancis Guinan (Fred) and K. Todd Freeman (Dee)

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Arch provocateur Bruce Norris returns with a surprisingly sensitive drama about convicted sex offenders

I was a liiiittle apprehensive when it was announced that for his next trick US provocateur Bruce Norris – he of caustic race relations drama ‘Clybourne Park’ – would write a drama about a group of convicted sex offenders.

In fact, the subject matter seems to have brought out the best in the oft-glib Norris. ‘Downstate’ is a very, very knotty drama which takes a deeply ambivalent but ultimately sensitive look at the lives and motivations of its four sex-offender protagonists. There are jokes, but they’re not in (excessively) poor taste. Instead, Norris and director Pam MacKinnon – the show is a co-production with Chicago’s legendary Steppenwolf Theatre Company – approach the main characters with a kind of caustic tenderness.  

Fred (Francis Guinan), Dee (K Todd Freeman), Gio (Glenn Davis) and Felix (Eddie Torres) are on the Illinois sex offenders’ register, for a range of offences which are revealed as the show wears on. Unable to go anywhere near schools or places where children gather, they live in a government-owned home way downstate – Chicago is out – where they are heavily monitored, most directly by Cecilia Noble’s perma-pissed-off police officer Ivy.

The quartet are a diverse bunch in terms of age, race and sexuality. All that really unites them is their gender and their overweening self-pity. And sometimes it’s difficult to entirely disagree. Davis’s pugnacious, motormouthed Gio may be a bit of a dick, but his actual offence – as he tells it – would appear to be relatively socially acceptable. The other three are incrementally less so, but there are serious shades of grey here.

‘Downstate’ points out that sex offenders are human beings too. It is not saying this to be provocative; it is saying that to simply dismiss fellow human beings as ‘monsters’ is to wilfully wash our hands of something that should be everyone’s responsibility. As the programme note from Roger Lancaster explains, these sorts of exclusion orders have been proved to be completely useless in stopping reoffending; they are gesture politics.

So yes, Norris does make us feel something for the waspish Dee, whose offence is probably more offensive than Gio’s but is not as offensive as Fred’s, and certainly not as offensive as Felix’s. But then, there is something ultimately difficult to hate about Torres’s Felix: he is pathetic, a ruin of a man just trying to live his life quietly.

If anyone comes close to monsterhood, it’s Guinan’s wheelchair-bound Fred. He sounds folksy and gentle, but no matter how benign his language is, there is something horrifying about the way he won’t stop talking intrusively when Andy (Tim Hopper), a troubled man he abused as a boy, comes round to the house in a confused effort to get some closure.

The plot of ‘Downstate’ loosely revolves around events set in motion by Andy’s visit. While Norris isn’t afraid to have some dark chuckles with the inherent awkwardness and absurdity of the situation and its endless banalities, I never felt he was being un-serious about the gravity of the crimes committed. Andy is perhaps more of a device than a character, which is a shame, but I don’t think the play ever belittles him.  

If Norris humanises these men, that’s only because they are human, and to understand they’re human is to understand they are products of our society, that we can’t just give up on them. Norris doesn’t ask us to have empathy, but he does make a case for sympathy.


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5 out of 5 stars

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1 of 1 found helpful

I was intrigued by the premise and unsure how I would feel about the subject. I also took along my husband without telling him anything about the subject matter. It is very cleverly written in that gestures or comments said or done in other circumstances would be entirely acceptable, but in the context of an abuser trying to offer comfort to the distressed person they had abused, left the audience feeling very uncomfortable and a slight audible gasp could be heard. The protagonists were "real" people who had hopes, everyday tasks and life to contend with. I felt conflicted by how I was feeling about these individuals and how I was supposed to feel towards these "monsters". The acting by everyone was superb and understated, the only people who verged on caricatures for me were the husband and wife visiting to confront his abuser. I would recommend you see this play and see that their punishment is real and even though life can go on it is by necessity challenging. Each character had a different personal definition of Love, and this is their downfall. Since seeing this I have been challenging my own prejudices and opinions, rightly or wrongly. That is the sign of an excellent production.

1 of 1 found helpful

A hard play to sit though, full of detailed child abuse detail. However the play provides a lot to think about, much of it controversial. How should we deal with paedophiles, how should we punish them ? Can they ever be forgiven ? Can they ever be returned to "normal" society, or should they stay segregated from their neighbours, and left to rot ?

There are outstanding performances, K Todd Freeman is especially good. The issues stayed with me after I left the show, and I found myself forced to rethink about the many issues raised.