Steppenwolf’s world premiere Downstate was, at times, a difficult show to watch. The subject matter is one which has, rightfully, been at the center of public discourse the past few weeks and is an especially sensitive matter for many, including me.
Downstate begins with a sexual abuse survivor (Andy, played by Tim Hopper) confronting his attacker (Fred, played by Francis Guinan) after 30 years, hoping to find some peace by voicing some of the anger, pain, and hurt he’s battled for three decades. His attacker, though, is far from the impassioned, angry denier America witnessed two weeks ago; he’s an elderly man, ostensibly sweet-natured, complete with a vocabulary peppered with “oh golly”s to reinforce this perception. As the work develops, we grow to learn more not just about Fred but also his housemates, three fellow sexual predators, and their crimes.
Undoubtedly, especially with a triggering subject such as this, there will be some who passionately object to this play on the grounds that it, to some extent, asks us to elicit sympathy for sexual criminals. But I, at least, believe it’s much more complicated than that. Playwright Bruce Norris does not advocate for forgiveness or absolution for these men; he does not, by any means, present them as flawless human beings (one of the characters, in fact, expresses some beliefs about his relationship with a young boy that are very clearly disturbed).
Rather, the play seems to point us not toward polarity but to deeper questions about humanity: do we throw someone away for doing a terrible act? Once the initial punishment has been served, how do we rehabilitate these individuals back into society?
These are complicated questions, ones which Norris does not attempt to answer. But, by posing them and presenting a perspective that explores the flaws within all of us, Downstate dives deeper into those things which make us human.
For all its complexity, though, Downstate has two major faults. First, the women on stage play an incredibly small role in the intense conversation. Two of the three women on stage are relegated to minute parts that are laughably one-dimensional.
Second, and more importantly, is our current political and social climate: is this the moment to discuss polarizing points of view toward sexual criminals? We are just now becoming more open about calling attention to unacceptable sexual behaviors and advances, and even those are oftentimes met with equal support and censure (and, in some cases, a supreme court nomination approval). Is this the conversation that needs to be at the forefront?
It’s a challenging question to answer, particularly when the tremendous ensemble cast is chock full of breathtaking performances. Hopper’s Andy is infused with such pain and conflict that it’s impossible not to acknowledge the impact the sexual abuse had on him. As the play develops, and Andy’s anguish turns to anger, Hopper connects these emotions in such a way that we again cannot question their validity.
The consistently strong Francis Guinan is both lovable and detestable as Fred, manifesting the play’s complexities in his very performance. And Glenn Davis’ smart-mouthed, smooth Gio is a perfect contrast to Fred’s calm demeanor.
The standout performance comes from K. Todd Freeman as Dee. Initially, Dee is extremely likeable, amusingly full of quips and sassy retorts. But eventually Dee’s lack of remorse for his crimes comes to the surface, and it becomes clear just how deluded he is, just how troubled his life and his past have been. The pendulum swings back and forth between loving and hating Dee, between rooting for him and detesting him. Neither hero nor villain, Dee embodies what the play hopes to remind us: we are all, at our core, human.
I believe women (and men). And I also believe in having difficult conversations: in thinking about ways to improve our incarceration and rehabilitation systems, in methods for increasing mental health awareness and workplace decorum as a means of preventing some of these horrendous crimes. Downstate drives its audiences to do this, but it asks us to dig into this issue at a time when victims of abuse are not always sympathized with, let alone acknowledged. Does a wonderful production outweigh the moral dilemma such a play poses?
I, like Norris, will ask the tough question without answering it.
Somewhat Recommended ★★✩✩
Review by Emily Schmidt
Downstate continues at Steppenwolf Theatre through November 11. More info here.
The Hawk Chicago is included in TheatreInChicago's Review Round-Up.