For more than a decade, Bruce Norris has made it his job to not only write plays, but to write ones that shock, disturb, entertain, and, above all, make us think twice about even our deepest assumptions. The result has been everything from a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award (both for “Clybourne Park”) to audiences walking out at intermission (“The Pain and the Itch”).
So, I’ll start by admitting your reaction to “Downstate,” which has finally arrived at Playwrights Horizons four years after its debut at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, may differ from mine – although I think no one can argue that what’s on stage is brilliantly acted by an eight-person ensemble and scrupulously directed by Pam McKinnon.
As for me, I think this play is perhaps his best one yet, as it examines our notions of punishment, revenge, forgiveness and victimization as we delve briefly into the lives of four sex offenders living together, not always harmoniously, in a suburban halfway house (beautifully designed by Todd Rosenthal).
Two of the men are clearly heterosexual: the arrogant, big-talking Gio (a spectacular Glenn Davis, who is something of the show’s comic relief), who has been convicted of statutory rape; and the quieter Felix (an excellent Eddie Torres) -- a devoted Bible quoter like Gio -- who orally violated his pre-teen daughter yet is devastated by the court’s ruling that he may never contact his child again.
Meanwhile, the group’s “house mother” Dee (K. Todd Freeman, worthy of every award possible) is a proud, flamboyant gay man who served 15 years in prison for what he still maintains was a “consensual” relationship with a 14-year-old boy. If it wasn’t mutual, Dee asks, why would the boy have written him letters for six years saying he missed him? (As Norris knows, there are numerous answers to this question!)
Still, could they really have been in love? Not according to the group’s often frustrated, clearly overworked – and decidedly heterosexual peace office Ivy (a fine Susanna Guzman). And, apparently, not according to local society, who have shot through the home’s window, made repeated death threats by phone and constantly change the zoning rules to keep Dee and the others away from local children.
Of course, the neighbors may be just as concerned by the presence of Fred (a fantastic Francis Guinan), who seems kinder than Mr. Rogers and is confined to an electric wheelchair. But is he really harmless? As we learn, as a married choirmaster 30 years ago, Fred raped two of his young students, including Andy (a pitch-perfect Tim Hopper) who suddenly remerges with his rather supercilious wife Em (an underused if superb Sally Murphy) to confront Fred – and make him sign a confession to his sins.
This storyline, which makes up the bulk of the show’s second act, is where Norris challenges our most conventional ideas. Is Fred, who can’t even walk (after having his back broken in prison), an actual threat to anyone? Should he be forced to subsist on food stamps? He’s admitted his crimes, but is his punishment “worthy” of them?
More controversially, Norris posits that Andy may not be as much of a victim as he claims. He tells Fred that he can’t even get dressed without Em’s help, but he has a good job in finance, drives an Audi, and has fathered a five-year-old. He can buy what he wants at any supermarket or drive any place he wants to go. Is he as crushed by his daily trauma as he says? Moreover, is it too much to expect either Andy or Em – or any of us -- to find some compassion for Fred or even be capable of true forgiveness.
So many questions, with such difficult answers. “Downstate” begs us not to avoid them. I beg you not to avoid this remarkable work and production!
By Brian Scott Lipton
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