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Tuesday 21 May 2019

Downstate, Play 2018, by Bruce Norris directed by Pam MacKinnon, National Theatre London, 8.5 out of 10

Four men who have served their sentence for various child sexual abuse offences share a home in downstate Illinois. If the premise of this play puts you off, do not let it. Playwright Bruce Norris (Clybourne Park) has written a thought-provoking new play with sharp and punchy dialogue. The ensemble cast is excellent, too. The questions Downstate raises will keep you reluctantly but deservedly busy well after the final curtain has dropped. While this National Theatre-Steppenwolf co-production has ended its current run in London’s National Theatre it is likely to reappear on the theatre circuit in London or elsewhere.

Downstate Illinois 2018; in a house shared by four men, Andy (Tim Hopper) who is in his thirties comes to confront the whitehaired wheelchair-bound mild-mannered Fred (Peter Guinan). Andy seeks acknowledgement of the crime Fred has committed against him when Andy was a 9-year-old and Fred his piano teacher. Fred has served his time in prison. whose Andy has spent much of his life in therapy and attending child abuse survivors-groups. Fred’s three housemates are also convicted child offenders: The black gay Dee (K Todd Freeman) is unrepentant about his “love affair” with a Peter Pan cast member just about underage. Loud-mouth tattooed Gio (Glenn Davis) was in prison for sex with a 15-year-old girl and the Hispanic Felix sexually abused his own daughter. Having completed their stays in prison, laws in the US demand that their neighbours be informed of the offences. Moreover, restrictions are imposed upon their movements, that can make their day to day life difficult. It is almost impossible for them to find a house or apartment to rent. Hence the sharing arrangement in one of the rare available properties in rural Illinois. Their weary overworked probation officer Ivy (Cecilia Noble) regularly checks up on them. As the inner and outer tensions of the different protagonists become apparent a drama begins to unfold.

There is probably no topic on which one can get most people to agree so easily as on the vileness of the crime of child sexual abuse and of the people who commit it. There will also be widespread agreement that the safeguards set by society after offenders have served their sentence. Playwright Bruce Norris (who had a hit with his previous play Clybourne Park, however, is nothing if not a talented contrarian. In a cleverly constructed play with punchy, witty and moving dialogues he manages to make us see the perpetrators of vile sex-offences as individuals with human character traits beyond their sexual offences and proclivities. Norris does this without detracting from the fact that the men concerned are guilty of various offences ranging from the vilest to the quite bad. Every individual is different; every offence is too. Be that as it may, all the perpetrators will remain under the scrutiny of their neighbours and the penal system for the rest of their lives with severe restrictions imposed upon them. 

The survivor Andy is not only traumatized by his experience but also conditioned by the lifelong treatment and the ideas purveyed in the survivors-groups to solidify his victim-status which he tries hard to overcome. 

Norris poses the issues very skilfully and in an entertaining way that keeps the audience on the edge of their while making them think about strongly formed ideas well after the play is over. His writing has a touch of the great David Mamet’s (Oleanna, Race) about it. 

Downstate at the National Theatre was a co-production with Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre where playwright Bruce Norris is a talented actor and playwright. Pam MacKinnon’s direction is spot on. Acting performances of the ensemble are excellent. Francis Guinan as Fred and K Todd Freeman as Dee stand out, as does Cecilia Noble in the role of probation officer Ivy. While the play has ended its current run in London’s National Theatre it is likely to reappear on the theatre circuit in London or elsewhere. I can recommend it despite its seemingly off-putting subject matter. It is an important contribution to a fraught subject.