Steppenwolf opens the season with another exceptional and highly controversial play called “Downstate” by Playwright and Pulitzer Prize-winner and ensemble member Bruce Norris. This world premiere is a Co-Commission and Co-Production with the National Theatre of Great Britain. It brings to the stage a provocative play where four men convicted of sex crimes against minors share a group home where their neighbors continuously remind them of their shameful past. As the lights suddenly darken and this play comes to life, we see a man along with his wife speaking to a handicap elderly gentleman. The floodgates are open when we find out this man is at the home to confront his accuser.
Seeking to find closure, Andy (Tim Hopper) looks for a reason why he was violated, which damaged him as a child and continued to kill his sense of reasoning as a man.
This compelling and disturbing plot is set in an unknown Illinois suburb, where Dee (K. Todd Freeman), Gio (Glenn Davis), Felix (Eddie Torres) and the legendary ensemble actor Francis Guinan as Fred live. Each man has to deal with the daily reminder of why they are living in the hostile environment and are subject to a regular visit by their parole officer, Ivy, played by Olivier nominated actress Cecilia Noble. Noble, who is part of the collaboration of actors from the National Theatre of Great Britain, is convincing in her role.
The men are forced to wear the standard leg bracelet and are restricted from areas deemed too risky for men of their particular propensities.
Each man seems to seek out some form of normalcy; however, their lives are turned upside down when Andy comes to visit Fred. Fred and Andy’s continual discord seems to bring up stories about each man’s life and how they came to live in this neighborhood.
Director Pam MacKinnon and Norris brazenly bring the audience into the mind of pedophilia and ask the question, why?! Why do we hate so quickly without knowing why someone does what he or she has done. Why is forgiveness never given, why did we forgo the backstory, only to see the pain of the victim without asking why did the victimizer come to a conclusion to harm? Society, in this case, has one thought in mind; destroy before they destroy someone else; but is that truly humane?
Fred, who has sexually abused two underage students, seems genuinely remorseful; he desires to find closure and is very apologetic for his past and how afflicted Andy feels. Andy, however, can’t seem to come to grips with their encounter.
Dee, played masterfully by Freeman, is a proud gay man who speaks his mind, a little too much. Gio avoids talking about why he is there, he only seems to think about his future and isolates himself from the other man seeing his crime as less offensive. Felix is an introvert, seeking to stay hidden, hoping the world forgets his offense against his child.
All of the men battle with admitting their hideous past and seek some solace of acceptance, and Andy is their present-day reminder that they are despised people in a world filled with a desire to hate rather than love.
Tim Hopper, whom we have seen in several plays, continues to show why he is born to act. His candid, yet emotional portrayal of Andy was pivotal to the success of this play. He brought out so many emotions from the audience as we remained for the after show discussion that many wrestled with if they truly understand why he continued to experience this trauma.
One lady felt he needed to get on with his life as a man, then quickly said but after seeing the current events (Kavanagh hearings), she had the reverse mindset about abuse between something happening to man vs. a woman. We are hoping the audience will witness the same change of thought about sex offenders after seeing “Downstate.”
We remember going to a Christian Campus around the early 2000s and seeing a film about Jeffrey Lionel Dahmer. As I’m sure, the world knows that he was the Milwaukee serial killer and sex offender who committed the rape, murder, and dismemberment of 17 men and boys during the time span of 1978 to 1991. The film tried to explain why Dahmer had the offensive behavior and what triggered this young boy to become this repulsive man, but most of the people walking out halfway through the film screaming unpleasant words to the campus for showing the filth. We and a few others stayed to the end, and not one person in the audience seemed sympathetic to the little boy, they only hated the man.
“Downstate” provokes a gripping and empathetic, delicate and taboo dialogue in which the Bible calls us to love thine enemy, however, can we truly love when we can only see the hatred needed to harm and steal the tender soul and spirit of a child? We are not sure the world is ready for “Downstate,” but we are sure thankful to Steppenwolf for bringing it out of the closet.
Let’s Play Highly Recommends “Downstate,” however, to enjoy and understand this hypersensitive subject, suggest that you bring an open mind and not a closed heart.
The cast includes
Glenn Davis (Gio)
Todd Freeman (Dee)
Tim Hopper (Andy)
Francis Guinan (Fred)
Cecilia Noble (Ivy)
Aimee Lou Wood (Effie)
Matilda Ziegler (Em)
Elyakeem Avraham, Maura Kidwell and Nate Whelden round out the cast (Cops)