Downstate, the latest work by Pulitzer-winning playwright Bruce Norris, ranks as one of the most intense pieces of drama that I’ve ever seen. Almost three weeks after seeing this play in previews at Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago, I still find myself thinking about it almost daily.
Downstate is set in a group home for convicted sex offenders in downstate Illinois. Four men, registered sex offenders who have served their time, but still have to be monitored, share the home and Norris takes the daunting task of daring to potray these men as real human beings, obviously seriously flawed, but full-fledged people who push the limits of sympathy with the audience.
Norris goes out on a limb in humanizing the last people that society is allowed to despise and dispose of, and that remarkable feat almost obscures the underlying themes of the play. The characters are very real, but are also archetypes, with the offenders practicing varying stages of denial about what they did. He also demonstrates the restrictions placed on the members of the group home as we see how they are barred from owning smartphones or accessing the internet, and limited in where they can legally go to shop or work. The details of all this are eye-opening.
As the play opens Fred, played by the incredible Francis Guinan, is being confronted by Andy, one of his victims, played by Tim Hopper, who is trying to come to terms with his post-traumatic life using a questionable form of confrontational therapy and is having trouble with the fact that Fred seems like a very likeable and sympathetic soul. Fred is confined to a motorized scooter and would be the kind of elderly neighbor that you’d want to help and look after, except for the fact that he was a piano teacher who molested his young students.
Guinan and Hopper are spectacular in their roles. Guinan perfectly tugs at the audiences heartstrings, while eventually showing his true colors. With his determined sense of mission and then the utter confusion when he faces reality, Hopper captures the impotent rage of a victim of a crime that resonates throughout his life.
In the midst of all this, the other members of the group home are facing their own issues. Felix (Eddie Torres), a deeply religious hispanic man, has been caught trying to contact his victim, who is his daughter. Gio (Glenn Davis), a young black wannabee mover-and-shaker is seemingly in denial about the consequences of his actions, and operates as though he could very easily move on with life, if only “the man” wouldn’t keep him down. Dee (K Todd Freeman), who acts as Fred’s caregiver, is a deeply sarcastic gay man who, like most true villains, does not accept that he did anything wrong.
And I use the word “villain” on purpose. These are all characters who have sexually abused underage children. Society has deemed that they be registered as sex offenders for life, and that they be bound by restrictions that will never end. Norris does not in any way potray this life sentence as wrong. He simply shows the real-life implications of their status, such as when, early in the play, Ivy, the Parole Officer (played by Cecilia Noble) informs them that the city council has expanded the safety zone around schools to the point where they will no longer be able to shop at their regular grocery store.
That the audience can feel sympathy for the sex offenders and possibly feel the restrcitions are too much is a testament to how well Norris has crafted this play, and how well the cast makes them seem like real people. Even though all four offenders display varying degrees of toxic narcissism at different times of the play, it is possible to relate to them, or at least recognize them as being like people you’ve known.
The first act sets the stage and introduces the characters, while the second act is when everything combusts and we see the inevitable collisions of the different storylines.
I don’t want to dilute the effect of the story by givng a detailed synopsis. The emotional gut-punches are numerous. Norris also presents plenty of humor. Part of the nature of the human spirit is the ability to crack wise, even when you’re in a horrible situation of your own making. There are quite a few laughs in this play, and quite a few tears, plus some shocking things that might send some audience members over the edge, emotionally. Downstate, in the end, is an intense drama that tackles one of the most controversial elements of society in a very real and emotionally-draining manner.
Every aspect of this production is truly remarkable. Downstate is a commissioned co-production of Steppenwolf Theater and The National Theater of Great Britain, and following its run at Steppenwolf (which wraps up November 11) it will open in London next spring.
Directed by Tony Award winner Pam McKinnon, the cast, amazingly a blending of American and British talent, is note-perfect throughout. There is not a weak link. In addition to Guinan and Hopper, every cast member excels. K Todd Freeman (right) as Dee is a tragic character worthy of a show all his own.
Even the scenic design by Todd Rosenthal is sheer perfection, capturing the look and feel of a group home, with stains on the ceiling, and attempts at turning an institutional setting into a place to live.
Ultimately, this incredible work of drama leaves the audience pondering if this is really the best way for society to deal with the aftermath of sexual abuse. Is this a crime for which a debt to society can truly be paid? How do we deal with these people after they’ve served their time, and more importantly, how do we help their victims deal with their own personal aftermaths?
Downstate is a very important work of theatre, and if you have any chance to see this world-premiere production, you should. This is one of the great works of drama.
(Except for the poster photo, all photos are by Michael Brosilow, and are courtesy of Steppenwolf Theater).
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