An early conceit of Bruce Norris’s Downstate is that the convicted sex offenders—to varying degrees—view themselves as victims. Their parole officer Ivy (Cecilia Noble) says as much when she is questioning Felix (Eddie Torres) about his using the internet at the local library. Felix at first denies it, and then he decries the society that has placed this limitation on him. Felix looks like he is going to cry, Ivy looks exhausted, and far to stage right a window is ominously covered in cardboard—a hint that the larger community is the most unhappy character of all regarding this living situation.
In fact, life is not easy for the four roommates sharing a group home in downstate Illinois. A new town ordinance bans them from using their local grocery store because it is within two-and-a-half miles of an elementary school. Cell phones are prohibited as is the Internet, and they do not answer the land-line phone that rings often throughout both acts because the calls are always anonymous threats. They are expected to find employment (and three of the four do), but what options are open to men listed on the Illinois Sex Offender Registry as sexual predators?
If it sounds as though Norris is building a case for the audience to feel sympathy for these characters who have committed heinous crimes, that is partly true. But to a larger degree, Downstate calls attention to the fact that sex offenders continue to be members of our society after their prison sentences have ended.
Felix, the least developed of the four, was convicted of sexually molesting his daughter, and he struggles with the reality that he will never be able to reestablish a father/daughter relationship with her. Gio (Glenn Davis) is the youngest and loudest of the group. He is quick to proclaim that he is not classified in the same category as his three housemates because his crime was having consensual sex who a girl who was underage. Dee (K. Todd Freeman, in a spectacular performance) was once a successful dancer performing in a traveling company of Peter Pan. He engaged in a multi-year relationship with a 14-year-old who played one of the Lost Boys.
The central character, though, is Fred (Francis Guinan), an elderly, wheelchair-bound former piano teacher guilty of sexually molested two of his students. Fred alone among the four never declares that he has been mistreated nor does he deny the wrongness of his crime. Fred is defined more by his desire to move on with his life as it is; notably, an electric piano in the center of the room, which provides some joy for Fred in various circumstances, symbolizes Fred’s perspective on his life.
The victims of Felix’s, Gio’s, and Dee’s perversions are all alluded to in dialogue. One of Fred’s victim’s, however, has come to speak to Fred, and the play begins mid-conversation. Andy (Tim Hopper), a 12-year-old at the time of the crime, is now a man with a wife (Matilda Ziegler) and a child and a good job. He attends support groups for survivors of sexual crimes and is prone to bouts of debilitating depression. With Fred and Andy, Norris explores a complex predator/victim relationship with little hope of a resolution because Andy has a very specific expectation for how this meeting will play out; what actually occurs is far from the vision in his head. What Andy needed was for Fred to be a monster—to deny his culpability or maybe tell Andy that the past is the past and there is nothing Fred can do for him. Instead, Fred listens to Andy, repeating often that he wants to give Andy the opportunity to say everything that Andy needs to say.
A particularly fascinating aspect of the script (and a move that few can pull off as skillfully as Norris) is that the culmination of the play’s complex plot lines begins with a seemingly benign comment. Fred, in all sincerity, tells a departing Andy how much it means to him that Andy would take the time to travel so far just to see him once again. In that moment, Andy realizes that the meeting has been therapeutic for Fred. Perhaps Fred was clueless in this exchange, but the plot twist holds true because (fairness aside) Fred has accepted his current life while Andy remains stilted at the point of victimization. The result is multiple acts of violence carried out in rapid succession.
Following its run at Steppenwolf, Downstate will play at the National Theater in England in the spring of 2019. One can assume a New York engagement will follow although off-Broadway seems more likely than Broadway given the subject matter. Downstate is not going to please all audiences, but it is well worth seeing (really, any Bruce Norris show is worth seeing).
Norris’s most notable prior success was Clybourne Park, the 2012 Pulitzer Prize and Tony-winning play, which explored modern racial conflicts with shocking reality. Comparatively, though, Norris accomplishes perhaps his most provoking work to date in Downstate because his subject—pedophiles—is a group that American society wants to believe has nothing in common with law-abiding citizens. The characters in Downstate, however, do have something in common with the rest of us—they are trying to continue their lives to the best of their abilities given the consequences of their past actions. The characters, criminals and non-criminals alike, who are most successful in achieving this universal goal are those who accept that the past cannot be changed and that all we can control is our futures.