Theater review by Adam Feldman
Bruce Norris’s Downstate is hard to write about for the same reason it needs to be seen: It gives voice to the unspeakable. The play is set at a shabby group residence in southern Illinois for sex offenders who have been released from prison. All four of the men who live there were convicted of abusing minors, and although the particulars are different, their guilt is not in question. The question is: What happens now? Having done their time, they’re stuck in the period at the end of their sentences, or in a series of periods—an ellipsis that trails off to nowhere. Can any amount of punishment, in the eyes of the culture, be equal to their crimes? Is it possible to see them as anything but monsters?
These are questions that seldom get a hearing in public discourse, where there is little reward for getting near them. The motives for this aversion are diverse. Often it is rooted in empathy: Any concern about the lives of abusers may appear to devalue the suffering of their victims. Sometimes it is more cynical, as in recent political messaging about the dangers of LGBT “groomers.” In this context, it is difficult to even talk about what Downstate is doing without adding fuel to the pyre. (Senator Ted Cruz cited a positive review of the play in the Washington Post as proof that “the corporate media is praising pedophilia.”) That is why Norris’s play seems so necessary. It uses the tools of theater—imagination, nuance, empathy, irony—to make space for a conversation that seems hardly possible anywhere else.
Pam McKinnon’s needle-sharp, beautifully acted production premiered at Chicago’s Steppenwolf in 2018 and is now at Playwrights Horizons, with the same four actors playing the offenders, who vary in history and temperament. Francis Guinan is the soul of gentleness as the elderly, wheelchair-bound Fred, who molested at least two of his young piano students; K. Todd Freeman is Dee, a headstrong gay dancer who shows no remorse for what he views as a star-crossed romance with a teenage castmate. Eddie Torres is the desperate Felix, who can’t stay away from the victim he is barred from contacting, and Glenn Davis is the ambitious Gio, who holds the others in contempt. (His crime, he insists, was only statutory: “Any heterosexual man alive tells you he’s not attracted to adolescent girls? That man’s not being truthful, alright?”)
Downstate | Photograph: Joan Marcus
Downstate unfolds on a single day, when the visitors to the ruins of these men’s lives include their hard-nosed probation officer (Susanna Guzmán), Gio’s Staples coworker (Gabi Samels) and a couple from out of town: Andy (Tim Hopper) and his wife, Em (Sally Murphy). Andy has come with a prepared statement—the product of long therapy, patently encouraged by the righteous Em—to deliver to Fred, whose abuse he blames for his chronic depression and anxiety. “I began to accept that we can never truly escape the past, and that evil exists in the world,” he says. “And for me, at this moment, one part of that acceptance, is to look you in the eye today, and tell you to your face that you are a fundamentally evil person.” To this accusation, the unflappably kindly Fred is moved to reply: “Are you sure you don’t want some coffee?”
Norris takes his comedy black, as he has shown in such previous plays as Clybourne Park and The Low Road, and here it is often scalding. His aim is wide: He lays bare the blind spots and self-deceptions of the house residents even he also pokes at the penal system and, most provocatively, at the rage that can bubble just beneath a set of liberal pieties. Ted Cruz’s theatrics notwithstanding, Downstate is in no way a paean to pedophilia, but it prompts us to examine our vengeance, and that’s a lot to ask. (On the night I saw it, at least four people walked out in the first act.) It is touching in ways that make us uncomfortable to be touched—and that, in the theater, is a shattering gift. Brace yourself, and see it.
Downstate. Playwrights Horizons (Off Broadway). By Bruce Norris. Directed by Pam MacKinnon. With Francis Guinan, K. Todd Freeman, Glenn Davis, Eddie Torres, Susanna Guzmán, Tim Hopper, Sally Murphy, Gabi Samels. Running time: 2hrs 20mins. One intermission. [Note: The role of Andy is now played by Brian Hutchison.]
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Downstate | Photograph: Joan Marcus