Tuesday, October 09, 2018

Upstairs at Steppenwolf, 'Downstate' Shrewdly Explores a Topic Rarely Discussed Without Disgust -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

a world premiere play
by Bruce Norris
directed by Pam MacKinnon
Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago
Thru November 11

It is admittedly more difficult for me to like a play in which I find the main characters unlikable.

Of course, except in stringently non-fictional works, the characters are only saying words written for them by a playwright who may or may not personally concur with the things being expressed onstage.

Despite this truth, it is hard for me to imagine warmly embracing a play that has central figures espousing despicable opinions or undertaking violently harmful actions without any apparent justification.

Even though it is make believe, I--and presumably most audience members--innately take what I see at face value, and imagine it to represent the perspective of the writer, director, theater troupe, etc.

In Downstate--now in a world premiere at Steppenwolf, developed in conjunction with England's esteemed National Theatre--author Bruce Norris seemingly posits whether we can feel empathy for pedophiles, specifically four men who have been convicted, incarcerated, released and are now living rather spartan, still largely captive lives within a group home in downstate Illinois.

Despite the horrific things they have done, to varying degrees of acknowledgement, guilt and remorse, the sexual offenders played by Francis Guinan (Fred), K. Todd Freeman (Dee), Eddie Torres (Felix) and Glenn Davis (Gio) are, if not sympathetic, at least relatably human.

Fred is a kindly music-loving former piano teacher who was paralyzed in a prison beating.

Dee, a former cast member of a Peter Pan musical tour, cares for Fred in the most personal of ways, and is--like myself--a movie buff with a vast DVD & Blu Ray collection.

Felix longs to interact with his teenage daughter, despite having wretchedly abused her. And Gio, with ambitious plans, supposedly isn't long for the group home, for as a Statuatory Rapist, he's a Level I sex offender, unlike the others who are Level III.

Yet I--and others at Sunday's post-show discussion--found Gio to be the most unlikable character, even though his crime wasn't nearly as awful.

But whatever one may feel for the four characters, and empathy may be too strong a word for me, my point is that Downstate is a terrific play regardless.

Even if you simply observe Fred, Dee, Gio and Felix and can't conjure any emotion but disgust, that's OK. Norris isn't necessarily asking us to embrace them, just to consider them.

And he keenly offsets them through the characters of Andy (an excellent Tim Hopper), who was one of Fred's victims years ago and comes to say his peace, his wife Em (Matilda Ziegler), who is even more overtly repulsed by Fred, and Ivy (the superb Cecilia Noble, a Brit who has worked at the National Theatre), a parole officer who exudes both compassion and outrage as she makes regular visits to the home.

As always, Guinan is superb, and his "aw-shucks" nuance to Fred makes him hard to hate. And should we hate him, or simply what he did to Andy 30 years prior? After all, Fred had a sickness, served his time, was brutally beaten and is resigned to living out his life in a wheelchair in a group home, away from the rest of mankind and dependent on Dee's help with toileting functions. Seems many a paroled murderer has paid a lesser price.

Freeman, in a more complex role, is outstanding. Clearly quite intelligent, and defensive on behalf of Fred and Felix, he believes his sexual relations with a young teen were consensual and steeped in love.

I can't say I see this as an adequate defense--and Dee served a full 15-year term--but again, I think Norris is challenging us with difficult questions that have merit no matter what our answers.

Even if one's sense of empathy does have bounds that can't extend to pedophiles who have served their time yet will eternally pay for their misdeeds, Downstate should make you ponder if compassion and forgiveness should only be bestowed when it's easy.

It's a tough topic, but quite artfully handled under the direction of Pam MacKinnon. Proving that a play needn't portray the likable for me to like it. 

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