Theater Review – Bruce Norris’s ‘Downstate’

Downstate is a play is about a day in the life of four men living in a halfway house, each with a conviction for a sex offense involving minors. Yet the work wins rave reviews questioning ‘What is too much?’ when it comes to punishing these crimes. The play gets staged in three major cities to sold-out houses and wins extended runs and standing ovations. What’s going on?

The USs disastrous embrace of mass incarceration since the 1980s has in just the last decade finally provoked searching critique and  baby steps at reform.  But in the midst of rethinking how we reckon with various crimes, sex always seems to get left out.

A now-closed play that has had short runs in Chicago, London, and New York holds important lessons: How to get people thinking about endless punishment versus redemption.  How to confront some of the most repressive laws on the books of every state.  Downstate gets people engaged – what do residency restrictions do?  How exactly does parole operate?  Is stigma a part of life for those who have committed a sex offense?  What about the sex offense registry?

Downstate not only opens up these topics, it does it with such skill that critics raved about the acting and the writing even as they danced gingerly around these topics that are radioactive.  Even the right-wing New York Post declared the production was best of the season. A backlash against all the critical praise never really caught on. It shows how art can open minds that are otherwise closed.

ANDY: … after my child was born I started having panic attacks. And at first I didn’t want to make the association. I kept telling myself that fear and anxiety were normal responses to parenthood, what any adult would naturally feel when faced with the responsibility of caring for an innocent life. But then I started to notice that other parents were not anxious, on the contrary, they seemed happy and fulfilled. And it was only then I began to accept that we can never truly escape the past, and that evil exists in the world, and for me, at this moment, one part of that acceptance, is to look you in the eye today, and tell you to your face that you are a fundamentally evil person.

EM: [Andy's wife] nods, gravely.

FRED: (gently) Are you sure you don’t want some coffee?

Downstate – by Pulitzer prize- and Tony award-winning playwright Bruce Norris – begins where many stories end off: with the final confrontation between the protagonist and the villain, wherein the latter’s crimes are exposed and the afterglow of justice shines upon the whole of the earth. If this is what Andy envisioned when he visited the home of his former piano teacher, Fred, who molested him when he was 12, then it didn’t quite go according to plan. As Andy struggles to explain his unhappiness and anger to the man whom he believed has caused it all, life happens. Phones ring, housemates bicker over the price of groceries, and Andy’s overbearing wife, Em, inserts herself into the conversation uninvited to act as a cornerman for her husband or to throw biting remarks of her own at Fred.

Fred, wheelchair bound and growing a little forgetful, absorbs everything Andy says (including his violent fantasies of murdering him) with unfazed composure, expressing remorse for what he has done, without any discomfort of being confronted by it. Progressively, as Andy reads through his notes, he loses his place, stumbles over his words, and becomes increasingly irritated as he tries to land on some statement of finality that fully expresses the sense of injustice he feels. Eventually, the couple rises to leave, and as they do, Fred says, “Anyway it was real nice to see you again, Andy. I’m sorry you don’t feel the same way.”

‘Downstate cast (left to right): characters Fred, Gio, Ivy, Felix, and Dee

Downstate opened at the Steppenwolf Theater Company in Chicago in 2018 and has since appeared in London and New York, recently finishing a twice-extended run at the off-Broadway Playwrights Horizons between October 28th, 2022 and January 7th, 2023. The play has variably dazzled and disconcerted critics, winning both standing ovations and provoking a few theatergoers to storm out the door.

Left-of-center viewers expecting an opportunity to flex their forgiveness muscle and demonstrate how compassionate they can be – even before men so depraved, as the New York Times put it, that there’s “A foulness in the very air they breathe” – may walk away feeling mildly offended, considering they’re never given the chance. Instead, Downstate questions who needs to forgive whom. This is not a commentary on the Jim Crow laws, or the internment of Japanese American during World War 2, or any of the other times the United States has attempted to legislate a portion of its population out of existence – the reality portrayed on stage is frightfully true right now for nearly one million people and counting who are on the sex-offense registry.

But this is different, right? These people have actually caused suffering and need to be contained before they can do it again. Downstate does not dismiss the possibility of sexual harm. It does, however, explore the ways in which highly selective forms of harm are weaponized by the law to defend a regime of segregation, extolled by progressive feminists and Christian nationalists alike.

In such a climate, one would expect a play such as Downstate to concentrate on the power of mercy and empathy for those who are suffering – while granting the legitimacy of society’s profound disgust for the offenders at hand – before broadening the lens and revealing the essential and shared humanity of the people on stage. However, as the characters jockey around their cramped group home, contemptuously mock one another, and speak irreverently about their respective crimes, it soon becomes clear that such a reading is not possible and that any clemency that the audience brought with them has no easy place to fit into play’s mosaic.

Some of the funniest parts of the play stem from the banter between two of the halfway house residents, Gio and Dee. Gio is a smooth-talking aspiring entrepreneur who quotes frequently from scripture and always emphasizes the “statutory” element of his rape charge, involving a young woman who’d sported a fake ID showing her older than her years. Gio perceives the household in terms of an “offense hierarchy” based on sexual orientation and the ages of the minors involved. On this ranking, of course, Gio stands at the top. “The law can’t seem to distinguish between a one-time offender and these hardcore pederastic motherfuckers,” he complains. There’s no doubt Gio designates among the reprobates Fred and especially Dee, a campy and sarcastic gay Black man with a background in theater and a deep admiration for Diana Ross. Dee was incarcerated for a two-year long relationship with boy of 14 who played the role of Tootles in a 1998 national tour of Peter Pan. Their squabbling gives the play, as many reviewers point out, a “sitcom-like” quality.

Both Dee and Gio attract the ire of their parole officer, Ivy, who comes to the house after Andy and his wife leave. She has bad news – a new city ordinance extends the exclusion zone around schools from which registrants are barred, which just so happens to cut off the men in the group home from the city bus and their only local supermarket. It isn’t the first time something like this has happened. Ivy isn’t interested in punishing anyone or consoling them, for that matter. She has a job to do and she just wants to get through the day. When pushed, however, she‘s quick to justify her role. “People do what they gotta do to protect their family, alright? That’s just common sense. Same as you’d do to protect your own family.”

Ivy is often pushed, especially in her interactions with Dee, who, experiencing “social death,” uses irony as a form of resistance. As she rubs her eyes and complains about how tired she is, Dee says, “Oh, it must be exhausting keeping track of all these penises.”

Along with Gio, Dee is unrepentant of his crime, stating that he and his partner were in love, citing as evidence that the youth sent him a weekly handwritten letter for six years while he was in prison, before his death from AIDS at age 23.

Ivy doesn’t want to hear it. She says, “That’s. Not. Love. All right? You don’t get to use that word. It’s a sickness. That’s all it is. Love’s got nothing to do with it.” The fact that it was Dee’s use of the word “love” that finally set off the resigned and unflappable Ivy demonstrates the tremendous power that that word has as a normalizing agent for certain modes of sexual expression – case in point, its annexation by the mainstream gay equality movement. As such, people in Ivy’s position have a direct interest in denying that legitimizing force to the people they are responsible for monitoring.

If act one made the audience uncomfortable, act two crossed taboos so entrenched in American society that many people did not even know they even existed. The lights open on a domestic and casual scene, but something is wrong. Dee is sitting at the dining room table and Andy is on the couch, watching a game on his smartphone. He had forgotten it when he left earlier that morning and had returned to the house, both to retrieve it and to have another confrontation with Fred, this time without his wife present. As Andy waits for Fred to return, he awkwardly responds to Dee’s small talk. In the course of the dialogue, Andy begins to learn some of the commonplace things that occur to people on the registry. Asking about their shattered window, Dee replies: “That was done with a shotgun.”

ANDY: What do you mean, like a – ? Like –

DEE: Like a shotgun.

ANDY: – like, as a threat?

DEE: I don’t think it was a gesture of goodwill.

Like Ivy, when confronted with the inhumanity of the sex-offense registry, Andy justifies it in the language of family and safety, saying,

And look. I know that some of you – Those of you – I understand the system isn’t always fair, and maybe sometimes we err on the side of safety, and if in doing that we occasionally go too far and and and deprive someone like yourself of basic rights in a way that is disproportionate to – well shame on us and maybe we should look at that but I think it’s to some extent excusable because it reflects, you know, the priority we rightly place on children. As I think we should.

It soon becomes clear, however, that Andy is primarily concerned with convincing himself both of the necessity of the state penal system and of his victimhood as some kind of ontological absolute. Dee, despite experiencing physical abuse as a child, having made repeated suicide attempts, spending 15 years in prison, and living out the rest of his days with an ankle monitor, is not officially designated with the status of “traumatized.” Fred, we learn, is confined to a wheelchair after a fellow prisoner, incensed at Fred’s offense, stomped repeatedly on his spine. Both men have been reduced to what Giorgio Agamben (1998) calls “bare life” – biological continuance separated from the body politic, an exile into social non-existence. Not knowing how to speak pain to powerlessness, Andy becomes increasingly hysterical.

Surprisingly, Downstate won accolades from mainstream reviewers in outlets such as the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, New York magazine, New York Post, and was a New York Times critic’s pick” (as it was during the play’s 2018 Chicago run, as evidenced in a particularly acute review by a former gay journalist).

Shocking, controversial Downstate is the season’s best play so far,” was the New York Post headline to a review by Johnny Oleksinski.  Norris has written a complex and compassionate play, but not a preachy or judgmental one. The audience is never pushed to forgive or condemn, but rather to evaluate. Some past events we learn about are clear-cut horrific, while others are more layered. The punishment, to these characters’ fury, is equal.”

Take a deep breath and try to ruminate calmly on the position playwright Bruce Norris takes in his scintillating new play, Downstate: that the punishments inflicted on some pedophiles are so harsh and unrelenting as to be inhumane. Are you still reading?” began the review by Washington Post chief drama critic Peter Marks in a November 23rd, 2022, review. Norris is questioning what degree of compassion should society fairly hold out to those who have served their time for sexual abuse, assault or rape,” Marks continues. [T]he predators who’ve completed their prison terms are depicted not as monsters but rather as complicated, troubled souls.”

“Downstate wants to make you sit in discomfort as long as possible and see what lies on the other side,” wrote New York magazine critic Jackson McHenry. Imagine these men’s lives, what they talk about, where the law tells them they can and can’t go to get groceries. Dip your toe into empathy, but careful: The water’s boiling.”

New York’s theater press also chimed in with praise. In a time of brittle orthodoxy on the left and hyperventilating rhetoric about groomers on the right, Downstate has something to offend everyone,” wrote Zachary Stewart in a piece titled Downstate Offers Sympathy for Sex Offenders and Scrutiny for Victims” on the site Norris takes aim at the hypocrisy of a society that claims to value redemption but makes it impossible for all but the very rich. He also skewers a culture that evangelizes bodily autonomy and consent while endorsing the most brutally coercive tactics of the state …. All of that makes Downstate the must-see play of the fall. It powerfully reclaims the stage as a home for dangerous ideas, a place where the thoughts we would rather ignore confront us — not with startling moral clarity, but sublime doubt.”

The gushing critical praise for Downstate sparked a belated backlash in right-wing media in early December 2022. Washington Post scolded for ‘normalizing pedophiles’ in glowing review of a play about sexual predators,” was a Fox news headline on November 28th. The usually scandal-mongering UK Daily Mail purported to roll its eyes at the liberal media’s praise for Downstate, and then went on to excerpt the meatiest nuggets in a piece that that is remarkable for enriching the discourse rather than inflaming the craziness,” as one activist who helps organize resistance to the registry put it. He notes backlash never quite gained traction and sputtered after about a week.”

While Andy is depicted as ridiculous and his hostility as misplaced – the Washington Post reviewer calls him the play’s “most disagreeable character” – Norris recognizes him as a person who is deeply hurt, and is trying to find solace in Fred. However, Fred is unable to understand exactly what Andy wants him to say. Instead, he talks fondly of his memories with Andy when he was a boy, asking him if he remembers when he first learned how to play Chopin, saying, “that’s not an easy piece for someone that age but you just picked it up real quick and that was very advanced and that’s why I thought you woulda kept up with your playing because you just had a natural ability.”

In a heartfelt scene, Andy begins explaining his career in financial management:

ANDY: It’s – It’s – It’s – you know, it’s a way of helping people – people who, yeah, maybe have a little money and don’t know the best way to –

FRED: I bet that’s a big help.

ANDY: – cuz who was ever there for me, you know? When I needed help?

FRED: Without your dad.

ANDY: After he died, yeah, and my mom being so emotionally –

FRED: You were sensitive.

ANDY: – unavailable – I mean, had anyone been there – which is why I’m trying to help people now, ya know, to give back in some way, even if it’s… financially – at least I’m doing something.

FRED: Well, Andy, I’m just so proud of everything you’ve ac–

ANDY: (holding back tears). Well, I don’t feel proud, okay?

FRED: (soothing). I know.

ANDY: I haven’t felt proud for thirty years.

FRED: I know.

Andy continues to document the pain he has felt, and begins to sob:

ANDY: I thought you cared about me, you know?

FRED: I did care –

ANDY: No you didn’t.

FRED: – sure I did.

ANDY: You told me you were my friend.

FRED: I still am.

ANDY: You said I was special. That’s what you said.

FRED: And I meant it.

ANDY: No you didn’t.

FRED: You are special.

ANDY: But you said the same thing to Tommy.

FRED: Well –

ANDY: Why did you lie to me?

FRED It wasn’t a lie.

ANDY: You told him the exact same thing.

FRED: You were both special.

ANDY: You fucking liar.

FRED: Shhhhhh, now…

Interestingly, the two men find themselves in a similar situation as 30 years previously: Andy is trying to find some comfort in Fred, and Fred cares about Andy in a way that he seems not to want or need.

Eventually, after composing himself, Andy begins the process of doing what he ultimately came for, which is to have Fred sign an ironically named “reconciliation contract,” wherein Fred reads and signs a document compiled of a list of the crimes he committed against Andy. Fred is more than willing to comply with Andy’s orders and, yet again, accept responsibility for his actions. Note that this contract has some similarities to the protocols supported by “restorative justice” advocates, though at this point it’s unclear what there is in either of these men’s lives still left to be “restored.”

As Fred struggles to read the small font, listing the sexual acts he performed with Andy, there is one act which Fred claims he did not perform with Andy, but with another boy, Tommy. (The dialog slyly lets drop that Tommy is doing fine, married to a man and living in Paris.) Fred kindly suggests that Andy might have overheard him mentioning this in court and became confused. Andy is insistent, however, and demands that Fred confesses to it, and after he is repeatedly mocked and antagonized by Dee, the tension in the room reaches a fever pitch.

Finally, after the main action has concluded, Fred and Dee are sitting alone and downcast at the dining room table before Andy’s wife Em returns to yell at them one last time before the play’s end,

…because there is a change taking place, okay? And it’s long overdue, and people have been silent for too long, and I don’t claim to have all the answers, and I’ve certainly never believed in, like, an afterlife or anything? But now I’m actually kind of hoping there is one, because I don’t think we have the right kind of punishment for people who’ve done things like you’ve done, in this life, and maybe in the next one some kind of higher power will be able to figure that out. And I’m sorry if that sounds harsh? But that’s the way I feel.

Neither of them respond. As they talk to distract themselves, Dee recalls a scene from the 1972 film Lady Sings the Blues, when Billie Holiday, played by Diana Ross, is alone in a prison cell after being arrested for drugs, and he starts to tear up:

DEE: (ashamed). I don’t think I’m a very good person, Fred.

FRED: Ohhh, stop. Why would you say something like that…?

DEE: I’m filled with so much anger and hatred and it gets the better of me sometimes and I say things I shouldn’t say so I’m sorry if I did.

FRED: Well. I think you can be forgiven for that.

This moment emphasizes the nature of remorse and redemption separated from their socio-psychiatric narratives. Finally, Dee’s brazen and cynical defenses have broken down and he exhibits deep shame. However, instead of experiencing regret for the actions he was incarcerated for, it is his profound rage at the world for what it has done to him that makes him feel ashamed. Theatergoers anticipating a play relating to the redemption of sex offenders ultimately receive what they were envisioning. However, as it turns out, Dee expresses remorse for something which no one expects him to repent, and is forgiven by someone considered to be in no moral position to provide absolution. The audience bears witness to a moment of friendship and understanding at the farthest of society’s invisible margins.

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