Where: Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St.
When: through Nov. 18
By ANNE SPISELMAN
Bruce Norris is one of our foremost provocateur playwrights, and in an interview in the program for “Downstate” at Steppenwolf Theatre, he basically explains why. Asking himself “Who do I extend my sympathy to?” he answers “Well, I extend it to anyone to whom the world would deny sympathy. I’m not trying to be contrary or perverse. Because if we’re going to conclude that there’s one group or class of people that is wholly disposable, then I think someone ought to be speaking up, a tiny bit, on their behalf.”
In “Downstate,” a co-commission and co-production with the National Theatre of Great Britain that transfers there next spring, that “disposable” group is pedophiles. Norris looks at four sex offenders who have served their time for various crimes and are now living in a Downstate Illinois group home run by Lutheran charities – and realized in all its drabness by Todd Rosenthal’s scenic design–because they have nowhere else to go. He also brings in a victim who confronts one of them and the world-weary social worker who counts these four men among her 47 cases.
Essentially a series of discussions that would be less arresting were it not for Pam MacKinnon’s blistering direction and the superb acting, the play raises a number of questions highlighting the inequities of the system. Should all sex crimes be treated the same? Should offenders be given what amounts to a life sentence or are they entitled to forgiveness at some point? Do victims sometimes go too far in their desire for retribution?
While he in no way tries to mitigate or excuse the damage these predators have done, Norris does stack the deck in their favor as he depicts their rather dismal day-to-day lives. Required to remain on a sex-offender registry and wear ankle monitors, they can’t go on the internet or have cell phones, and their world keeps shrinking as places like the grocery store become off limits because of their proximity to schools and such. Rocks have been thrown through the windows because the neighbors don’t want them there. They’ve gotten so many threats they don’t answer the phone anymore, and they keep a bat by the door for protection.
The play starts with Andy (Tim Hopper), who has come from Chicago with his wife, Em (Matilda Ziegler), confronting his abuser, Fred (Francis Guinan), who was once his piano teacher and sexually abused him and a younger boy. Andy wants Fred to read and sign a “reconciliation contract” acknowledging the graphic details of his abuse – although he already confessed in court, except to one thing he doesn’t recall doing – but Andy is too distraught to go through with it, even though he’s egged on by Em.
Fred is now a sad, mildly affable if slightly creepy old man confined to a wheelchair because a fellow inmate broke his back by stomping on it with metal boots, and he’s so afflicted with arthritis that he can’t play his little electric piano and puts on CDs of Chopin instead. His responses to Andy are mundane and inappropriate, but we later learn that he may not be totally unaware of the suffering for which he’s responsible. At the same time, Andy’s return in the second act to complete what he set out to do suggests that the abused has become the abuser, though he is provoked by Dee (K. Todd Freeman), who has become Fred’s caregiver and the general house mother.
A flamboyantly gay actor and dancer who toured with Cathy Rigby in “Peter Pan,” Dee served 15 years for carrying on for two-and-a-half years with one of the Lost Boys, a 14-year-old who died of AIDS at 23, though Fred points out that Dee is HIV negative. Dee claims it was love, citing the fact that the boy wrote to him often while he was in prison. Dee is, by turns, in denial, defiant, argumentative, remorseful, angry that his sentence seemed out of proportion, and a whole lot more. Freeman gives such a fine, layered performance that I found myself believing that he was the good person he wanted to be.
His opposite in many ways is Gio (Glenn Davis), a gregarious, hyperactive “class 1” offender who served three-and-a-half years for statutory rape of a girl with a fake ID. Intent on being a success, he sees himself as different from the others, works at Staples, and likes breaking the rules, for example, by bringing home co-worker Effie (Aimee Lou Wood) who has an ailment that sends her running to the bathroom repeatedly and, she claims, allows her to smoke medical marijuana. Gio frequently clashes with Dee, who would prefer that everyone do what’s required to stay out of trouble.
Finally, there’s Felix (Eddie Torres), who abused his own daughter and deludes himself into thinking it was out of love. When he’s not retreating to his room, he’s at the library where he’s not supposed to be.
In a very long first-act session, Ivy (Cecilia Noble), who’s charged with keeping track of the men, accuses him of trying to track down his daughter and repeatedly lying, while he tearfully says he just wanted to buy a plane ticket to go see his sister who’s dying of cancer. As he begs permission to do this, Ivy threatens to send him back to prison. Though it’s obvious she’s been lied to often and is tired of it, her hardness and lack of compassion make it easy to see her as abusive. They also set up a climax that’s telegraphed way in advance.
Norris makes a strong case for his point of view, but two things struck me while I was watching “Downstate.” First, there is a palpable misogynistic streak, because all three women are monsters of sorts (and are the British cast members, though that’s probably co-incidental). Second, it’s hard to reconcile sympathy for these sex offenders with the revulsion I feel for the predators currently on the political stage, though they’re arguably worse for being men with power and abusing that, too.