At the beginning of “Downstate,” an unsettling play by Bruce Norris, Andy (Tim Hopper) is confronting the man who sexually abused him thirty years earlier, reading with shaky breath from a statement: “…I began to accept that we can never truly escape the past, and that evil exists in the world, and for me, at this moment, one part of that acceptance is to look you in the eye today, and tell you to your face that you are a fundamentally evil person. “
“Are you sure you don’t want some coffee?” his long-ago abuser, Fred (Francis Guinan), an elderly man in a wheelchair, asks gently, ever the polite host.
The audience laughs.
Playwright Bruce Norris manages to find moments of comedy in this play about four men, formerly imprisoned for sex crimes against minors, who live in a group home not far from Chicago, in downstate Illinois. It’s part of his larger project, aided by a superb cast and fine direction by Pam MacKinnon, to change the audience’s perspective about people viewed universally as repugnant.
It is not the first time Norris has turned the world upside down: He did it in “Clybourne Park,” flipping our view of the characters, fictional neighborhood and premise that Lorraine Hansberry created in “A Raisin in the Sun.” Norris’ play won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama (an award that, ironically, was not bestowed on Hansberry’s original.)
In “Downstate,” over the course of a single day, we learn about the four characters and their crimes. Gio (Glenn Davis) was convicted of statuary rape, having sex (presumably consensual) with an underage teenager. He has a job at Staples, great ambitions, an ostentatious religious faith and contempt for his housemates because of what he sees as their worse crimes. Felix (Eddie Torres), who works as a car mechanic, has attempted to reach his daughter that day because it’s her fifteenth birthday. He is forbidden contact with her because, as we learn in graphic terms, he molested her as a child. Felix is so distraught he seems barely functioning
More of the focus is on the other two, both of whom are retired (or at least of retirement age; they haven’t worked for years.) Dee (a spot-on K. Todd Freeman) was a musical theater performer and assistant choreographer who speaks in one-liners or blunt truths when he’s not talking languidly about Miss Diana Ross or his large collection of old movies. When he was in his late 30s, on a national tour of “Peter Pan” where he played a pirate, he met a 14-year-old who was also in the company, as a Lost Boy. They had sex for two years. Dee was sent to prison for 15. He doesn’t think he did anything wrong; he saw the boy as his lover: ”He sent me a hand-written letter every single week for six years after I was sent away, telling me how much he missed me.”
Fred is a one-time piano teacher who molested two of his young students, including Andy (the only victim we meet.) Unlike Dee, Fred is remorseful. And when Andy shows up, Fred is apologetic. He is also happy to see him, as if a long-lost friend, and praises him for his talents as a pianist, wishing he had kept at it. (Guinan is impressive in persuading us of his character’s childlike simplicity and sense of decency and decorum.)
It is probably not a coincidence that two of the four sexual offenders in the play targeted females and two targeted males, as if Norris is trying to be even-handed, part of his effort to show child molesters as not just human, but varied. In several ways, however, these four seem far from any kind of accurate cross-section of this particular population. While we can hardly expect a playwright to make his play a social science documentary, it feels suspect that only one of the four might (or might not) be a recidivist offender with multiple victims. But the main argument for Society’s harsh (lifelong) punishment of child molesters is precisely that they pose a continuing (lifelong) predatory threat, an argument that Norris ignores. (What is the actual rate of recidivism? Department of Justice: “Unfortunately, recidivism remains a difficult concept to measure, especially in the context of sex offenders. The surreptitious nature of sex crimes, the fact that few sexual offenses are reported to authorities and variation in the ways researchers calculate recidivism rates all contribute to the problem.”)
If Norris tries to make these four characters distinct, there are two ways he makes them alike. They all seem to see themselves as victims rather than victimizers – or at least are accused of seeing themselves that way, living in denial and delusion. And they all are victims. They are in a “down state” in innumerable ways.
Norris digs deeply and raises some uncomfortable questions, both practical and moral. What should be done with these men? What is being done to them?
Because they are registered sex offenders, they are not allowed access to the Internet or smart phones. But the men’s parole officer, Ivy (Susanna Guzmán), shows up during the day to announce a new enhancement of a local law, the upshot of which is they can no longer shop at the local grocery store, even though it’s not in any practical way near a school. (There’s one across an eight-lane highway that’s impossible to cross for miles.) When the men complain that there’s no easy way for them to get food anymore, Ivy says:
“Nobody really wants y’all livin’ anywhere, much less in their neighborhood…So maybe ya oughta be thankful ya gotta roof over yer head in the first place. “
Don’t they know it. The men routinely get death threats, and rocks thrown through their window; one time it was a shotgun blast
“Like, as a threat?” Andy asks when Dee explains the broken window.
“I don’t think it was a gesture of goodwill.”
In casually revealing the punishments — torture, really – that some of these individuals have been subjected to, Norris shows skill at mustering a modicum of sympathy for among the least sympathetic people on earth. It is perhaps a sign of the playwright’s contrarian nature that he doesn’t seem to extend much sympathy to the one victim. Andy seems to be treated satirically, as a would-be liberal who says sensitive liberal things one moment, but (the playwright seems to be showing) has made too much of this single incident when he was twelve years old. He is not really seeking closure (as it first appears), nor justice, but revenge.
“Downstate” ends in some over-the-top theatrics, a carefully plotted climax that certainly doesn’t happen on a typical day, even in the lives of these troubled men. But what we’re left thinking about is the complicated problem that these characters represent, which is happening every day and everywhere.
Playwrights Horizons through December 22, 2022
Running time: two and a half hours including an intermission
Tickets: $61 to $101
Written by Bruce Norris
Directed by Pam MacKinnon
Set design by Todd Rosenthal, costume design by Clint Ramos, lighting design by Adam Silverman, sound design by Carolyn Downing
Cast: Glenn Davis as Gio, K. Todd Freeman as Dee, Francis Guinan as Fred,
Susanna Guzmán as Ivy, Tim Hopper as Andy, Sally Murphy as Em, Gabi Samels as Effie, and Eddie Torres as Felix