A Controversial Play Asserts the Humanity of Sex Offenders
Bruce Norris’s Downstate, at London’s National Theatre, makes a provocative case for the redemption of child abusers.
The four men who live together in Downstate, Bruce Norris’s new play, are—for the most part—likable. Endearing, even. Fred (played in the National Theatre’s current production in London by Francis Guinan), a septuagenarian piano teacher in an electric wheelchair, is amiable, folksy, and seemingly naive (he’s described in the play’s text as “not unlike Fred Rogers”). Dee (K. Todd Freeman), who’s a former choreographer in his 60s, is droll and theatrical, but has a gentle manner when he helps take care of Fred. Felix (Eddie Torres), a mechanic in his 40s, is quiet and unassuming. Gio (Glenn Davis), the 30-something loudmouth of the group, is the most grating, sniping at the others and asserting his own superiority, but there’s something poignant about the fact that he’s trying to teach the isolated Felix to play bridge.
None of this is accidental. Norris, who’s structured this play as deliberately and meticulously as his Pulitzer Prize–winning Clybourne Park, wants audiences to like these men, to sympathize with them, to connect with their prosaic rituals and petty squabbles, before he exposes the fullness of what they’ve done.
There are hints, though. Downstate is very much a play of its time, both artistically (it twice refers elliptically to “a kind of reckoning” going on) and practically, meaning that there are trigger warnings before people buy tickets and more warnings as they enter the theater. “Downstate,” the National’s website states, “discusses and contains graphic descriptions of child abuse and rape.” These four men aren’t living together in an odd-couple quadrant because they’ve chosen to do so. They’re living together because society has deemed them too offensive, too dangerous, to live anywhere else.
These are the kinds of men who are frequently referred to as monsters, the kinds of people for whom human empathy quickly finds its limit. In the first scene of the play, Fred is being confronted by a former pupil of his, Andy (Tim Hopper), whom Fred molested when Andy was 12. Andy believes that evil exists in the world, he tells Fred with some agitation. He also believes that Fred is fundamentally evil, and will never be deserving of any sympathy or forgiveness. This isn’t a sentiment many people would disagree with. People who’ve abused children are among the few groups that still inspire unilateral condemnation, bipartisan disgust. When everything else feels so complicated, the ethical calculation here seems relatively simple. But, Downstate asks, should it be?
What Norris is doing is like tap dancing in a minefield—fiendishly difficult and potentially explosive. He wants to make people think about forgiveness, about who deserves it and how it might be earned. But he also wants to complicate things, to provoke questions instead of answers, to muddy clarity with nuance and complication. If Downstate is Norris’s response to the #MeToo movement, as it appears to be, then its audacity is remarkable: This is a play that asserts the humanity not only of your common-or-garden harassers and creeps, but also of the most reviled offenders on the criminal spectrum.
Just as Fred, Dee, Felix, and Gio occupy a swath of different age groups, races, social classes, and occupations, so, too, do their offenses vary. Fred abused two of his pupils; the question of whether he was aware of the depravity of what he was doing hangs over the play. Dee sexually assaulted a 14-year-old boy when he was 37, although he continues to insist that their interactions were part of a loving relationship. Felix molested his own preteen daughter. Gio was convicted of statutory rape for having sex with an underage girl, regarding which he repeatedly protests that she had a fake ID and lied about her age. Gio is, he emphasizes in the play, a “level one” offender, while the others are “level three.” Ivy (Cecilia Noble), an exhausted parole officer who checks up on all four men, isn’t persuaded by any of their excuses. She tells Felix that the only thing her 47 clients have in common is that “every one of you’s a victim. Everybody’s misunderstood, been done wrong, system’s broke, system ain’t fair, blah blah blah.”
Ivy’s observation is on the nose, although what Norris seems to see with more clarity than Ivy is that denial and victimhood are coping mechanisms. The four men are incapable of grasping the true ugliness of what they’ve done. Fred responds to Andy’s testimony with platitudes and an avuncular, affectionate manner that flusters Andy more than approaching his abuser does. Felix, reproached by Ivy for violating his probation, breaks down and sobs in an outburst of self-pity that is nevertheless heartbreaking to watch. Dee has crafted a careful rationalization for what he did, based on anthropological pseudo-facts and years of selective interpretation. Gio declares his innocence more ferociously than any of the others, and he’s the only one who sees any kind of redemption in sight—his entry on the sex-offender registry will be scrubbed if he gets through his probation period without reoffending.
In Pam MacKinnon’s extraordinary staging of Downstate, co-produced with Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre (where it premiered last year), the occupants of the house teeter on the edge of being too sympathetic. Guinan’s Fred, in particular, would be irreproachable as a character if not for his history—he listens solicitously to Andy and apologizes, but has trouble even coming close to understanding the magnitude of Andy’s pain. (Andy expresses bitter suspicion over whether Fred’s innocence, his “whole gee-whiz-golly-gee bullshit” is real or an act.) Dee, too, is exceedingly engaging when he’s not spouting grim justifications for having sex with a 14-year-old. What this enables Norris to do is raise the uncomfortable idea that not only might some people who’ve abused children not be evil, but also that they might be capable of redemption.
At the very least, he argues that the system that exists now for dealing with child sex offenders is hopelessly inept, more fixated on location than rehabilitation. Ivy tells the housemates that the zone excluding them from a nearby school has been extended to a perimeter of 2,500 feet, essentially barring them from any local grocery store. The phone rings throughout the show but is never answered, a mystery that only becomes clear when Dee explains the death threats they receive from neighbors. “Why not put us on a desert island?,” Dee asks early in the play, a joke that nevertheless captures the paradox of what to do with the people whom nobody wants to think about, deal with, or encounter. The concepts of therapy or restorative justice aren’t mentioned in the play. There’s no acceptable pathway for these men to try to make amends, whether they want to or not.
These issues reverberate far outside the confines of Downstate. One of the most surprising, depressing things to observe almost 18 months after the #MeToo moment exploded is how few of the implicated men have been able to fully accept and apologize for what they’ve allegedly done. Norris illuminates how much easier it is to embrace the idea of victimhood than it is to pursue an honest self-evaluation, which is, presumably, why Louis C.K.’s stand-up is so angry now, and why the words witch hunt have been bandied around so wantonly that they’ve lost all meaning. What might happen, Downstate wonders, if the concepts of forgiveness and rehabilitation were prioritized? Might it be easier for abusers to suspend denial?
Forgiveness, though, is an inordinately hard ask of someone whose life has been upended by pain. This is a fact Norris obscures in Downstate by making Andy so two-dimensional, a character who—unlike the other men—is defined only by what’s happened to him. The play goes too far when it suggests that because Andy is wealthy and happily married while his abuser is living on food stamps, Andy’s anguish might not be as grave as he claims. Andy’s wife, Em (Matilda Ziegler), is similarly portrayed as a pitchfork-wielding fury who’s blind to shades of gray and prone to upspeak. “I am not a vengeful or spiteful person?” she tells Dee and Fred, right after making a comment that exposes her as inhabiting both qualities. Norris makes a persuasive case that people are more than their worst actions, which is why it’s so disappointing that Downstate can’t acknowledge the full humanity of Andy and Em, a couple that’s still trying to process profound trauma 30 years after it happened.
As far as responses to #MeToo have gone, though, Downstate is more thoughtful, more complex, and more counterintuitive than anything else that’s yet emerged. Theater seems particularly inclined in this moment to explore the inner worlds of men who’ve been accused of horrific actions, between Steven Berkoff’s Harvey Weinstein play and David Mamet’s upcoming show inspired by the same subject. Norris, who’s often compelled to dive into the fault lines of Western culture, has created a rumination on forgiveness that challenges conventional thinking with no small amount of grace. “What do we do with these men?” the BuzzFeed reporter Katie Baker asked in a New York Times op-ed last April. It’s striking that, to date, so little effort has been invested in answering.