They seem so harmless, the four broken men who share a nondescript little house in Bruce Norris’s Downstate. They wash dishes, unpack groceries, listen to music, and consider the various ways their lives veered off course. You look at the soft-spoken septuagenarian in the motorized wheelchair or the ambitious thirtysomething memorizing Bible verses and think they couldn’t hurt a fly.
They have hurt people, of course. Not just any people—children. Norris, the contemporary theater’s master of moral ambiguity, lavishes a kind of three-dimensionality on a group of abusers that is usually reserved for victims. And Downstate—which makes its New York debut at Playwrights Horizons after productions at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre and London’s National Theatre—strives to make its audience uncomfortable.
You will hear in graphic detail how Fred (Francis Guinan), now the old man in the wheelchair who relishes his Swiss Miss and Nutter Butters, fondled the young boys whom he taught piano decades earlier. You’ll learn how Felix (Eddie Torres), another resident of the group home, molested his preteen daughter. Norris pursues other avenues of discomfort, like the proudly defiant stance that Dee (K. Todd Freeman) takes in defense of his “relationship” with a fourteen-year-old child actor who later died tragically. (Even typing that word in scare quotes feels icky, given the context.) If you’re still reading this review, consider it all one big, fat trigger warning.
But Norris, a brilliant button-pusher, isn’t interested in black-and-white condemnation. In choosing to engage with a topic as sensitive as pedophilia, he takes the risk that some will dismiss his play outright as apologia for the truly unforgivable. Before I saw it here—under the sharp direction of Pam MacKinnon, doing her best work since Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? on Broadway a decade ago—I may have easily fallen into that category.
Yet, Norris’s script succeeds in raising questions that the viewer cannot ignore. And rather than seeking sympathy for characters who have committed what for many is a crime beyond forgiveness, he extends empathy to them instead—the same emotion one would give to the injured party. It’s a bold choice.
The four parolees occupying the halfway house in suburban Illinois exist under the watchful eye of Ivy (Susanna Guzmán, in a coolly effective performance), a probation officer who monitors their every move. The quartet also includes Gio (Glenn Davis), who despite his conviction for statutory rape believes himself to be better than his counterparts. They experience multiple degradations, from being told where they can shop to learning that the busted front window of their house, shot out by an unhappy neighbor, is not a high priority for repair.
Are we supposed to feel bad about their plight? Should we wince when Andy (Tim Hopper), one of Fred’s victims, confronts him at his house and calls him a “fundamentally evil person”? Does it matter that Andy—especially in Hopper’s astonishingly volatile performance—is not a particularly likable person, and that his goading wife, Em (Sally Murphy, playing nicely against type), is even more unpleasant? These questions rattle around as you watch the superb acting that leaves nothing clearly telegraphed. Andy’s rage and seeming absolutism are certainly biproducts of the abuse he endured—he seeks out Fred in the hopes of gaining some closure. But he also recognizes that most abusers are also former victims. Even he can’t avoid the grey area.
Fred remains the play’s fascinating enigma. Unlike Dee—whose insolent view of his crimes might be seen as a defense mechanism—he takes at least outward accountability for what he did to Andy and another student, Tommy, who is described but never seen. But Guinan, an endlessly interesting actor, hints at flecks of remaining malevolence beneath Fred’s beatific attitude. If he hadn’t been disabled by a prison vigilante, might Fred have been at a greater risk to reoffend? Is his current grandfatherly affectation a front? Can we ever really know the contents of his mind?
Norris takes a few big swings that ultimately miss. He turns Andy, in his zeal for restitution and repentance, into something of a straw man, and in doing so, indirectly casts doubt on the validity of survivor stories. A side story involving Gio and his Staples co-worker Effie (Gabi Samels), whose age remains unclear, is not fully developed. And there’s a “shocking” twist that’s so obvious, the people sitting around me at a preview performance began to verbalize it long before it actually occurred.
Despite these issues, Downstate achieves what only the most searing theater can: It forces us to consider what we don’t want to. My thoughts remained trapped in that crumbling little house—rendered with surgical sterility by Todd Rosenthal and lit punishingly by Adam Silverman—long after the performance ended. And even writing about it now, I wonder if my feelings can be so easily contained.
Downstate made me angry. It also made me think. Not that pedophiles deserve some kind of blanket redemption arc: that would be too laughably simple for Norris. But that people—despite what they’ve done, or what’s been done to them—are more complex than they may appear.