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'Downstate' review — a provocative yet thoughtful meditation on punishment

Joe Dziemianowicz
Joe Dziemianowicz

Downstate, the thoughtful and thorny drama by Bruce Norris, author of the Tony- and Pulitzer-winning Clybourne Park, is built on a plot structure as conventional as can be.

A knock on the door and the arrival of an outsider turns the delicately, if not precariously, balanced world on the other side of the threshold upside down.

But who comes knocking and who’s inside the door is anything but run-of-the-mill in this skillfully acted Playwrights Horizons presentation directed by Pam MacKinnon.

Fortysomething Andy (Tim Hopper) comes to a group home for convicted formerly incarcerated sex offenders in downstate Illinois. (Set designer Todd Rosenthal evokes the cheerless space in realistic rundown grimness.) He has traveled here to confront Fred (Francis Guinan), the piano teacher and pedophile now in his 70s who molested Andy and a younger boy three decades ago.

“I used to fantasize about how I would kill you… I’d jam the barrel of a gun down your throat,” says Andy, who’s seated with his wife, Em (Sally Murphy), in the living room of the residence. “Okay,” says soft-spoken Fred, who has used a wheelchair ever since someone who discovered his crimes beat and kicked him until his back was broken.

Andy speaks haltingly as though it’s hard to breathe. Then high-strung Em steps on her husband’s agonizing efforts to answer a phone call from their son. Discussing a water park trip couldn’t wait?

More interruptions come as we meet the other three group home residents – Dee (K. Todd Freeman), Gio (Glenn Davis), and Felix (Eddie Torres), who are all on the Illinois roster of sex offenders. Their offenses, like their degrees of remorse, vary.

Dee, a former dancer and the unofficial den mother of the residence, had sex with a 14-year-old boy in what he calls a two-year “relationship.” Shaky Felix abused his young daughter. Motormouth Gio refers to his offense as statutory rape.

All four offenders live on short leashes, wear ankle monitors, and have their movements closely checked, we learn through Ivy (Susanna Guzman), their prickly probation officer. A cardboard-covered window in the home was shattered by a shotgun blast.

“A threat?” asks Andy. “I don’t think it was a gesture of good will,” says Dee, who has a righteous wisecrack teed up for every occasion. “We get rocks… Death threats. Lotta death threats.”

Between that loaded line and the presence of a baseball bat that doubles as a weapon, it’s only a matter of time before events go from tense to worse.

Dark but streaked with spiky humor, Downstate is filled with confrontations. In a way, the play itself is a confrontation. Audiences are asked to consider individuals they would probably rather never think about.

It’s a messy subject, and the play manages to raise various questions. Is closure possible? Is serving one’s sentence for a crime enough? How should offenders be treated? Norris is too smart a writer to be chasing after tidy answers and neat conclusions.

Through it all the fine-tuned actors — several of whom reprise roles from the 2018 world-premiere run at Steppenwolf Theatre Company — skillfully navigate the charged material.

Not everything works, including a dramatic reveal that one sees coming a mile away. Despite the provocative topic, the play feels less of a button-pusher than a searching meditation on a fraught mine field.

Downstate is at Playwrights Horizons through December 11. Get Downstate tickets on New York Theatre Guide.

Photo credit: Francis Guinan, Glenn Davis, Susanna Guzmán, Eddie Torres, and K. Todd Freeman in Downstate. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

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