Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

Steppenwolf Theatre
Review by John Olson|Season Schedule

Francis Guinan and K. Todd Freeman
Photo by Michael Brosilow
They say there are only seven basic plots in fictional writing and all the others are just variations. I'm willing to bet Downstate tells a story that hasn't been told before. Or least not widely seen if it has been told. Bruce Norris's new play, jointly commissioned by Steppenwolf and the National Theatre of Great Britain, follows several hours in the lives of four convicted sex offenders living in a group home outside Chicago. It shows their efforts to continue their lives in the face of increasingly limiting legal restrictions on where they can live or even be, the fears and vengeances of their victims or just fellow citizens, and their own struggles with memory and shame. Norris asks if laws designed to protect children against convicted pedophiles are, in the extreme, excessive, and if punishment and protecting society sometimes crosses over into vengeance.

Norris lays out his case carefully, but without ducking the big questions. His four sex offenders were all convicted of crimes against minors, but in varying circumstances. Fred (Francis Guinan), a sixty-something former music teacher, was convicted of molesting two pre-teen male students. Dee (K. Todd Freeman) was a dance captain on a national tour of Peter Pan who had a 2-1/2 year loving and consensual (he says) sexual relationship with one of the Lost Boys in the cast. Felix (Eddie Torres) was convicted of sexual contact with his 12-year daughter, and Gio, an African American in his early twenties, was convicted of statutory rape with an underage girl who he says lied about her age.

So, while Norris presents us with four of the fear types of sex offenders, he suggests that three of the four would seem to pose little to no threat in the present. Most harmless of the four would appear to be Fred, a wheelchair-bound paraplegic with limited use of his hands, due to an injury suffered since the time of the molestations. There's also reason to believe Dee would not be a recidivist. He was not a serial abuser—his only victim was the one boy who he says wrote him for years while he was in prison. Gio, though a brash young man in what would be the prime of his sexual life, may well have been duped by his older-looking teenage victim. Felix may be the exception—on this day the visiting parole officer Ivy (Cecilia Noble) informs him that he's been caught trying to make contact with his daughter.

If these men are not clearly dangerous serial predators, was it really necessary for the unnamed downstate Illinois city to expand the radius from protected areas in which they can travel? Parole officer Ivy tells them that the laws have just expanded their forbidden radius from a school for developmentally challenged children from 2000 to 2500 feet. That means they can no longer travel to or shop in the nearest grocery store, but must go to a more distant and more expensive convenience store not even reachable by public transportation. Is it fair that they must also endure threatening telephone calls and rocks or bullets through the living room window of the home provided for them by a social service agency? (A suitably bland and modest looking place as visualized by scenic designer Todd Rosenthal).

The play opens during a visit to Fred by one of his former victims, Andy (Tim Hopper), who's traveled from Chicago with his controlling wife Em (Matilda Ziegler). A docile Fred listens patiently as Andy struggles to read a written "confrontation," frequently breaking the silence with offers of coffee to the couple. The visit from Andy, who is still haunted and damaged by the genital touching he received on the piano bench from Fred thirty years earlier, sparks an eventual downward spiral on a day that ends badly for all concerned.

While much of society may view these men as monsters, Norris, director Pam MacKinnon, and their cast show the underlying humanness in their efforts to maintain some sort of survival routine. Guinan's Fred is a gentle soul, remorseful for his crimes and kind to the others in the house. Freeman is a revelation as the gay former dancer Dee—defiant and knowledgeable enough about the law to challenge the parole officer, and de facto leader and spokesperson for the residents, but a kind caretaker to the infirm Fred. It's Freeman's energy as Dee—resentful of what he sees as victims' unending victimhood and determination to stand up to whoever necessary to fight for the men's humanity—that drives the play's action. First among his nemeses is Parole Officer Ivy, who as played by visiting British actress Noble, is given a mixture of uncompromising toughness but with an underlying humanity her character shows sparingly. Noble creates a subtext that shows Ivy's love-hate relationship with her job.

Also strong, but in smaller parts that are less rich, are Torres and Davis. Torres creates a fear and anxiety in the now-religious Felix that is palpable. Davis's cocky Gio—close to completing his parole—is convinced he'll succeed in the world once he's given greater freedom. His lack of self-awareness provides some comic relief in a play with less humor than Norris usually provides. Aimee Lou Wood—another visiting Brit—is also funny as Gio's co-worker at a Staples store.

Hopper's Andy resembles some of the other roles the actor has played—meek, a little nerdy—but the script brings him to an ultimate cry for vengeance that comes from a submerged but suspected rage. Matilda Ziegler's Em is the sort of privileged white woman we've seen in other Norris plays, but in Ziegler's hands is deliciously loathsome.

MacKinnon's actors initially create a mundane world in which the convicts try simply to survive by staying under the radar, but tension builds to two climaxes—one predictable, the other not—that present life and death stakes. Downstate is bound to be disturbing to different people in different ways. Some will resent being asked to spend two and half hours with a sympathetic portrayal of men demonized by society. Others may be outraged at the injustices depicted by the sort of living death sentences meted out to the men. And likely there will be those uncomfortably in between, challenged by Norris to look at American society's treatment of these untouchables in a different way. However you look at it, it's a thrilling and disturbing piece of theater with compelling and unforgettable performances.

Downstate, through November 11, 2018, at Steppenwolf's Upstairs Theater, 1650 N Halsted St., Chicago IL. For tickets or further information, visit or call 312-335-1650.

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