Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Bruce Norris (Clybourne Park, 2011) brings his play Downstate to Playwright Horizons after its premiere at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre and The National Theatre of Great Britain.
As Downstate begins, we meet a nervous man named Andy (Tim Hopper) holding a piece of paper and sitting next to his wife Em (Sally Murphy) on a couch. Across from them is an older man in a wheelchair. After a few exchanges, it becomes clear that Andy has come to confront this man, Fred, his childhood sexual abuser and former piano teacher (Francis Guinan). As Andy reads the statements to Fred that he has previously written, his faltering courage is further undermined by Fred’s banal interruptions, Em’s well-meant but impatient, willful urgings, and the comings and goings of Fred’s three other housemates, Gio (Glenn Davis), Felix (Eddie Torres) and Dee (K. Todd Freeman).
It doesn’t take Andy long to give up, so when he and Em storm out without any satisfaction the play continues, and we get to know the other housemates in this group home for sex offenders. In and around interactions with parole officer Ivy (Susanna Guzmán), we learn during the course of the play that Fred’s back was broken in prison by another inmate who despised him for his crime, that Felix insists he loves his daughter (although Ivy reminds him “my husband loves his golden retriever but he didn’t stick his dick in her mouth”) and that Dee had an on-going sexual relationship with a 14-year old boy who later died of AIDS. All we know about Gio is that he claims to be better than the others; he had sex with a minor whose fake ID stated she was 17, so he’s only a “level 1” and the rest are a “level 3.”
Eventually, Andy makes his way back to the house without Em, to retrieve his cell phone which he accidentally (or maybe not) left behind earlier that morning, and to finish his confrontation with Fred alone. What he gets is plenty of provocative discussions with Dee before Fred gets home, pitching the play forward to its anguished conclusion.
This play is very well cast. Hopper brings Andy’s inner torment, pain, and self-righteousness palpably to the role. Murphy delicately blends Em’s endearing compassion with her uncomfortable judgment. Guinan’s dependent, childlike portrayal of Fred successfully bandies the audience between sympathy and loathing. Davis as Gio is as slick and funny as he is arrogant and disdainful, easily placing himself above others.
Torres brings a convincing regret and humility to the role of Felix, attributes that ultimately cannot eclipse his guilt and shame. Guzmán creates an excellent mix of sympathy and cynicism in parole officer Ivy, and Gabi Samels is swift and clever as Gio’s low-class sidekick Effie.
The lines delivered by the elderly gay character of Dee are where playwright Norris interjects his most uncomfortable barbs, and Freeman does not disappoint in the role. He portrays Dee as tender, protective, and humorous when appropriate, but the sparks fly when his shrewd criticism and defiant accusations hit their targets.
Norris’ smart and effective script is packed with controversy; its characters are stained by the trauma in which their lives have been steeped, and it’s uncertain they will ever feel clean again. So many questions come to mind as this play unfolds:
Can a victim ever completely forgive an offender, or can an offender ever completely forgive himself? Can a sexual assault victim forgive himself if he enjoyed the assault even for the briefest moment?
Do age of consent laws conflict with humankind’s innate sexual nature?
Can reality be empirical if it is subject to human memory? Do victims ever lie? Does assault justify reciprocal violence?
Whatever the answers, it seems clear that if mankind continues to let itself be defined by its past and avoids living strictly in the present, forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing may be forever elusive.
Pam MacKinnon’s direction is terrific; she orchestrates the scenes and dialog to perfect pitches. The scenic design by Todd Rosenthal provides just the right look for the setting and balance for the movement around the space. The costume design by Clint Ramos is efficient and spot-on for the characters.
Downstate is a stirring, thought-provoking play about a deeply painful topic that plagues societies around the world. It’s an extremely tight piece of writing; every word and action is relevant. I can’t wait to see it again.
Downstate (extended through January 7, 2023)
Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.playwrightshorizons.org/shows/plays/downstate2223/
Running time: two hours and 25 minutes including one intermission