'Downstate': Theater Review

Downstate Production Still 3 - Publicity - H 2019
Michael Brosilow
The broken inner child is father to the broken grown man.

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Bruce Norris explores tensions within a group home for convicted sex offenders with his latest drama, transferring from Chicago's Steppenwolf to London's National Theatre.

Clearly a play going places — unlike the geographically regulated characters it's about — author Bruce Norris' brutal and brilliant Downstate lands at London's National Theatre with its original cast on board after debuting to mostly rave reviews last fall at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre. Centered around four ex-con sex offenders living in a group home who must ensure their daily movements take them nowhere within a set radius around a local middle school, the play continues Norris' engagement with the knottier aspects of identity politics, community and real estate as examined in his Pulitzer- and Tony Award-winning Clybourne Park.

Like this production, Clybourne Park also was directed by Pam MacKinnon, making Downstate their fifth collaboration to date. An excoriating examination of the complex morality around abusers, asking exceedingly tricky questions about empathy, this is an uncomfortable watch from every angle, making it very much of its time but probably a work that will resonate long after all the hashtags stop trending.  

The single set represents the living room of a suburban house, decorated with mismatched third-hand furniture, motivational posters, a thickly collaged noticeboard and, somehow the most tragic touch of all, one of those folding wall-doors that turns what was probably a dining room into one more bedroom for a fourth resident in the Lutheran Social Services of Illinois group home. Ensconced by the state in this dreary base, with a taped-up window still not fixed since a neighbor blew it out with a shotgun, are four very different men, even if in the eyes of the law and society their offenses put them into the same criminal category.

Odd alliances have formed as well as simmering antipathies. Avuncular former piano teacher Fred (Francis Guinan), a doddery old duffer in a wheelchair who sodomized two prepubescent pupils years ago, relies on flouncy, acid-tongued Dee (K. Todd Freeman, giving the night's most outstanding performance in a highly competitive field) to get his groceries and remind him when to take his medication. A survivor of an abusive, impoverished childhood himself, Dee spent 15 years in prison paying his debt to society for having had a two-year "relationship" (his word) with a 14-year-old who played a Lost Boy in a touring production of Peter Pan on which Dee served as assistant choreographer.

The fact that Fred and Dee have different ethnic backgrounds hardly matters much here, except when it comes to musical preferences (Fred's a Chopin fan; Dee is all about Miss Diana Ross). They're united more as friends by generational proximity and a preference for young men, even if Fred was once married to a woman now long gone and dead, damaged collaterally by his crimes.

Another axis is made up by the two younger men in the house. Fast-talking, swagger-strutting Gio (Glenn Davis) insists he's an entirely different kind of sex offender given that the rape for which he was convicted was merely statutory, with a girl in her teens. He has a job at a big-box store and will have the conviction expunged from his record soon if he keeps his nose clean. Inclined to quote from scripture, he shares a bond with fellow Christian Felix (Eddie Torres), a quiet Latino from Texas, gentle-mannered like Fred, but nevertheless in this mess because he abused his own daughter before she even entered her teens.

Norris is masterful at slipping backstory detail into the dialogue, and in collaboration with the highly competent cast, each character has a distinctive voice and vocabulary that they deploy to create a carapace made up of shame and self-preservation alike. All of them have attended the state-required group and individual therapy sessions, and they know that they're supposed to talk about their guilt, how they need to "own" the crimes they perpetrated. But there is something rote and insincere about these proclamations, in varying degrees.

Dee, for example, seems most truly himself when discussing his favorite scenes in the 1972 Ross screen vehicle Lady Sings the Blues, or parrying legal arguments with parole officer Ivy (Cecilia Noble), the latter a touching study in exhaustion and frayed patience. Ivy has had it up to here with him, disgusted that Dee no longer even pretends to feel contrite about what he did. It's pretty clear she's right: He doesn't, he just hates the suffering he's had to go through because of it.

The text plays some very tricky high-wire moral games about who gets to be recognized as a victim; some audiences will be deeply troubled by it and may renounce the way the play suggests that sometimes people misremember or even lie about being abused.

The dramatic fulcrum here is a confrontation between Fred and one of his victims, Andy (Tim Hopper), a now-grown and married man (wedded to Matilda Ziegler's brisk Em), who has come to compel Fred to read a prepared statement, confessing all his crimes — and you can hear the verbal italics and bold type in that "all." In a wrenching, stuttering performance, Hopper and Norris' lines go just far enough to suggest that as a child Andy found in Fred a father figure he loved, hinting that maybe he feels some jealousy that he wasn't abused in the same way as the other victim who testified against Fred.

For audiences not necessarily steeped in the discourse of abuse and rape culture, the most immediate and handy touchstone for understanding the psychology might be the recent documentary Leaving Neverland. In that film, both the men who allege that Michael Jackson abused them talk about their feelings of rejection when he moved on to new boys, and there's a way that Andy's feelings here echo that confusion. But with clues and hints faint as watercolor marks, Norris suggests maybe Andy's making some of it up — this could provoke wrath from viewers staunch in the faith that all victims must be believed.

These are debates that will be thrashed out with passion in bars after the show night after night, and there are many shades of stance to be taken. For this critic, it feels like the ambiguity injected over Andy's motives is a slightly cheapening dig at the sanctimony around #MeToo, and the "shrillness" of victims that some want to devalue for a whole range of reasons. It detracts somewhat from an otherwise tightly constructed and thoughtful play that is already so troubling, especially when it asks us to take a long, clear look at these broken men — in Fred's case quite literally, having had his spine snapped by a beating from an outraged vigilante — and ask are they really "evil" or "monsters," or just damaged men who made very bad choices, and in three out of four cases were abused themselves as children.

It is entirely to the credit of Norris, MacKinnon and their cast that they can collectively propose these ethical theorems with the elegance brought to bear here, along with an uncomfortable, ticklish wit, which is not something one expects in a play about child abuse. 

Venue: National Theatre, London
Cast: Glenn Davis, Mark Extance, K. Todd Freeman, Francis Guinan, Tim Hopper, Cecilia Noble, Brinsley Terence, Eddie Torres, Shelley Williams, Aimee Lou Wood, Matilda Ziegler 
Playwright: Bruce Norris
Director: Pam MacKinnon
Set designer: Todd Rosenthal
Costume designer: Clint Ramos
Lighting designer: Adam Silverman
Sound designer: Carolyn Downing
Presented by National Theatre, Steppenwolf