At the Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre

By Dan Zeff

Chicago –Attending a Bruce Norris play means the audience has let itself in for a high-risk theatrical experience that will unsettle the viewer to the point of considerable mental discomfort.

Norris’s latest effort is “Downstate,” receiving its world premiere at the Steppenwolf Theatre in a co-production with England’s National Theatre, where the show opens next spring. In this play, Norris takes as his central theme our attitudes toward adult men who abuse vulnerable children. The staging is terrific, the acting often flashpoint, and Norris’s slant on this hugely controversial subject riveting.

“Downstate” (a curiously neutral title for such an incendiary drama) takes place in a group home for sex offenders somewhere in downstate Illinois. Four men live together in the home, which resembles a large bland motel suite.

          (Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow)

Fred is a mild-mannered piano teacher who abused two of his young male students. Dee is a laid back homosexual actor who abused one of the boy actors in touring revival of “Peter Pan.” Felix abused his young daughter but still claims he loves her and wants her back. Gio is younger than the other three, guilty of a grade 1 offense. The others have been convicted of the more serious grade 3 offenses. Gio is incensed because he is branded as a sex offender for what he considers is little more than a misdemeanor. They are a diverse lot. Fred is white, Gio and Dee black, and Felix Hispanic, though ethnicity plays a minor role in the narrative. It’s the crime and not race that holds the spotlight.

There are three significant outside characters. Andy is one of Fred’s victims, returned to confront the older man with accusations that the abuse has destroyed his life. Ivy is a social worker faced with the impossible job of trying to safeguard the rights of offenders while still administering the law for a crime society finds abhorrent and undeserving of sympathy or mercy.

The first act surveys the stifling lifestyle the four men endure. They are restricted to their home and only a small perimeter of open space outside. They can’t even shop at a local supermarket because the business is a few feet too close to the housing. The men also are banned from Facebook, the Internet, or visits to the local library. They are harassed by vandalism and death threats.

The locals don’t want the men in their neighborhood. They abused defenseless and trusting children and thereby are cast into society’s outer limits. And after they complete their sentences, the perpetrators must register as sex offenders, follow housing restrictions, and fear actions by neighborhood vigilantes. They are treated with more hatred and disgust than Charles Manson.

           (Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow)

The play shows the four offenders as human, an attitude even the most liberal onlookers might resent as misguided. But is it proper to write the four, and similar offenders, out of society? Isn’t this country a land of second chances? In many minds, not when the crime is so vile as sexual abuse of little boys and girls.

But perhaps the men were abused as children themselves, carrying the psychological scars that warp their adult life. Maybe the men are mentally ill. That could cut a murderer some slack. But asking even the most tolerant person to mitigate an offender’s punishment might be more than we are prepared to grant. Child abuse is unforgivable, or can we accept that rehabilitation and time may be a healer? That’s the kind of bruising question Norris asks the viewer. Andy, for one, would cry “No mercy. Look what he has done to my life!” But Andy may be consumed by so much bitterness and lust for vengeance that he undercuts our sympathy for his anger.

The play’s most gripping scenes are extended verbal duets between Andy and Fred, Andy and Dee, and Ivy and Felix. The intensity of the exchanges is blistering, with the offenders staking their positions with uncompromising passion. There is one on-stage brawl and an off stage death, but mostly “Downstate” deals in volcanic language.

Three of the four offenders are cast from the cream of the Steppenwolf acting roster, and they are all memorable—Frances Guinan as Fred, K. Todd Freeman as Dee, and Glenn Davis as Gio. Eddie Torres plays the agonized Felix with an emotional meltdown that is almost too painful to watch. None of the men appear to be serial pedophiles, and none were violent in their abuse. But does that allow any extenuation for what they did?

Cecilia Noble, a guest actor from England who presumably will play the role in London, is marvelous as the social worker with too many cases and too many clients constantly lying to try to beat the justice system. Ivy is lumbered with too many conflicted feelings about dealing with victims and perpetrators. Aimee Lou Wood, another English actress, plays Gio’s thinly drawn girl friend Effie and Matilda Ziegler plays Andy’s wife, oozing contempt toward Fred for ruining her husband psychologically.

Todd Rosenthal designed the antiseptic house setting. The place looks pretty comfortable to live in, which might bother some viewers who complain that the comforts of the residence coddle the offenders. Clint Ramos designed the costumes, Adam Silverman the lighting, and Carolyn Downing the sound play. Matt Hawkins is the fight choreographer and his big fight scene is harrowing.

Pam MacKinnon, an old hand at directing Bruce Norris plays, extracts stunning performances from the ensemble and sends the audience out into the night with their minds buzzing and their convictions about the innate evil of sex offenders at least shaken.

Norris summed up his evenhanded approach to this inflammatory topic concisely. “I’m not just trying to be contrary or perverse. Because if we’re going to conclude that there’s one group or class of people that is wholly disposable, then I think someone ought to be speaking up, a tiny bit, on their half.” This intractable subject could not have a more articulate examiner.

The show gets a rating of

          “Downstate” runs through November 11 at the Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 North Halsted Street. Most performances are Tuesday through Friday at 7:0 p.m. (with some Wednesday 2 p.m. performances), Saturday at 3 and 7 p.m., and Sunday at various day and evening times. Tickets are $20 to $99. Call 312 335 1650 or visit

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