Paul T Davies reviews Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Bruce Norris’s Downstate at the National Theatre.
The Dorfman, National Theatre
20 March 2019
With the impact of the recent Michael Jackson documentary Leaving Neverland still being felt, this Steppenwolf Theatre production from Chicago arrives at the National, and presents a well rounded argument about the men who have committed child abuse. As in his most well known play, Clybourne Park, writer Bruce Norris looks directly at an issue that many of us would rather not face, and creates such complex characters that your view point and opinions are challenged, without ever once letting the men off the hook for the crimes they committed.
Four male registered sex offenders share a group home in downstate Illinois. There’s kind, softly spoken Fred, waspish gay Dee, (a sort of twisted version of Belize in Angels in America, with the same world weariness and gay activist approach), loud muscular Gio and almost quiet, seemingly inoffensive Felix. They squabble, there are tensions about home sharing, but these men also have restrictions they must obey. It’s a home at which shots are fired and the landline rings to leave abusive messages. As the play progresses, we see these men not as monsters, but as people, and it raises questions such as “When is punishment enough?” It’s a tough watch, not least because Norris deals with the back stories of abuse so well, but also making you realise that revenge is not the answer, and the excellent company perform it so well.
The impetus to the play is the arrival of Andy, (excellent Tim Hopper), supported by his wife Em, (Matilda Ziegler), to confront his abuser Fred, superbly played by Francis Guinan, a polite Southern gentleman who abused Andy and another boy when they were children. This relationship is at the heart of the play, and does Andy want revenge or closure? His restitution contract contains a lie that Fred is clear did not happen and was dealt with at the trial. Trying to keep the home together and acting as a carer to Fred, K Todd Freeman’s excellent Dee has the kind of lines that make you laugh then freeze the laughter almost immediately, and, fresh from Nine Night, Cecelia Noble plays another formidable women in Parole Officer Ivy, her language and directness a delight, but you also question just how impartial she is. She also knows everything the men have done and where they have been, including Felix, (Eddie Torres), who has broken his restrictions.
It’s a taut, uncomfortable watch, very well directed by Pam Mackinnon, that is no liberal “wishy washy” defence of these men, but does make you question how abusers should be treated. Andy’s PTSD and the accounts of their crimes are as graphically drawn as are the crimes committed against these men, who are humans not monsters. If you like challenging, well written and acted drama, this is the play for you.
Until 27 April 2019