New Bruce Norris play ‘Downstate’ argues that sex offenders are people, too

Downstate, the new play by Bruce Norris running in Chicago through Nov. 11th, is getting great reviews! The Chicago Tribune gave it four stars and Downstate is a New York Times Critic’s Pick. Here is the blurb by Steppenwolf Theatre Company: “In downstate Illinois, four men convicted of sex crimes against minors share a group home where they live out their lives in the shadow of the crimes they committed. A man shows up to confront his childhood abuser—but does he want closure or retribution? This gripping and provocative new play by Pulitzer Prize-winning ensemble member Bruce Norris zeroes in on the limits of our compassion as it questions what happens when society deems anyone beyond forgiveness.” As reason and justice are hard to find when sexual wrongdoing is at issue, this play has opened reviewers’ minds and likely many more–there are nearly 18,000 seats for the Chicago run and the show is said to be doing very well. Commendably, the play’s promotional materials have non-judgmental language; unfortunately in a Q&A for the program booklet the playwright uses the incendiary and stigmatizing term, “pedophile.” Kudos to Bruce Norris, the cast and crew, Steppenwolf Theatre Company, and the National Theatre for reckoning with this hot button issue. Below are links to the Tribune’s review, the Chicago and London (opening March 12th) productions, and more, have a look! -Bill Dobbs, The Dobbs Wire

September 30th, 2018

As the nonprofit American theater has primarily become a gathering place for educated, like-minded progressives, those who provide its content have a sacred moral and artistic duty not just to confirm the assumptions and worldview of their audiences, but to challenge all their settled preconceptions. Few dare. Theaters love to claim an affinity for risk even as they run away from anything other than confirmation.

But playwright Bruce Norris, whose intellectually rigorous new play “Downstate” will be remembered as one of the more incendiary and thus important productions in the illustrious history of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, has no problem attacking the elite liberal complacencies of the likes of Clybourn, or rather Lincoln, Park.

This is a lifetime habit for Norris at his home theater. I’ve watched him do it for more than two decades, and he has always been hardest on the liberal tendency to turn rabidly conservative when it comes to the care and protection of your own kids. But “Downstate,” which is a co-production with the National Theatre in London and is blisteringly acted under the direction of Pam MacKinnon, dares to do something that even Norris has not done before: to ask an audience to gather and debate the not-so-gentle proposition that sex-offenders are people too.

To embrace that trite phrase, of course, implies some degree of sympathy or empathy. In “Downstate,” which is set entirely in a group home for sex offenders, located in an unnamed Illinois community southwest of Joliet, Norris is asking us to consider a number of painful, potentially triggering things.

Does the statistic that says how being abused as a child often leads people to abuse represent mitigating circumstances? Have the dysfunctional realities of life as a registered sex offender come to represent cruel and unusual punishment? Is it fair to punish our fellow Americans so severely for what is generally agreed to be an illness?

Norris asks those questions by showing us the crummy intersecting lives of four sex offenders. Fred (Francis Guinan) is an aw-shucks piano teacher who abused two of his preadolescent students. He is in a wheelchair now, following a jailhouse attack. Dee (K. Todd Freeman) is a smooth-tongued actor who appeared in a Cathy Rigby tour of “Peter Pan” and, over a period of months, abused one of the lost boys. Felix (Eddie Torres) abused his own daughter, despite claiming ongoing love and concern. And Gio (Glenn Davis) is a younger man whose lower-grade offense is intended to make us think about how the sex-offender dragnet also snares those whose crimes are more understandable, assuming you are inclined to make such a distinction.

“Downstate” is not a crude apologia for the sex offender. It contains the gut-wrenching testimony of a survivor, Andy (Tim Hopper), who appears at the home with his spouse (Aimee Lou Wood), looking to confront his now-neutered abuser, Fred, as a way of trying to dig himself out of a hole he was pushed inside many decades ago, without regard to his own deserving.

Knowing Norris’ writing as well as I do, one of Andy’s monologues feels to me like a recent expansion, maybe from a suggestion from a nervous script reader understandably concerned that the play was not adequately reflecting the white-hot #MeToo concerns and thus would cause offense. But thanks in no small measure to Hopper’s heart-stopping performance, you are not ever left with the feeling that this play is minimizing the damage done by its protagonists. It is hardly news to America by now that most abusers come packaged with personal charm.

That loquaciousness is the way for such fine actors as Freeman, who is at once appealing and terrifying, to find their way into these men, stuck in a devil’s waiting room designed by Todd Rosenthal to look like everywhere and nowhere and all points between.

Freeman, doing the best work of his formidable career, evokes a caring man stewing in a pot of righteous bitterness, unseasoned by self-awareness, sure, but also boiling with indignation at the undeniable inequities of American punishment. As jumpy as Freeman is smooth, Davis comes up with a guy who keeps trying to turn on the faucet of charismatic escape, even though society has turned off the water. Torres, meanwhile, concentrates on the corrosive force of guilt, forever shrinking the on-stage space he occupies.

And what of Guinan’s sweet, regretful Fred?

Who is this person, you think as you watch, searching Guinan’s face for every possible clue.

Watching over these men is their parole officer, Ivy, played by Cecilia Noble, one of several British actors from the National in the cast. Noble’s work is also exceptional. She is avoidant of all cliche, ensuring that Ivy is just caring and unfeeling enough to make both part of the equation but, we always suspect, the only person on the stage who is all-seeing and all-knowing. Actually, her presence makes you think about how few of our furious opinions on these matters are fully substantiated — unless, of course, we have experience, as so many of us have said we do, which only makes this must-see play yet more agonizing.

The play opened, of course, days after Bill Cosby, a convicted abuser, was led away in handcuffs, and less than 48 hours after America was riven by a Supreme Court confirmation hearing that asked whether allegations of abuse should be allowed to derail the career of an enraged nominee. You might argue this is the best of all possible moments for a fearless play determined to make the anti-Panglossian case that nothing in jurisprudence, in life, is as binary as it might seem. Or you might argue, as those who have stayed silent pay the price of coming forward, that this is the very worst moment imaginable. You will have to see for yourself.

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