Sympathy for the Devil

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Mad props, or something, to the very intense woman seated three seats down the front row from me at Wednesday afternoon’s performance of Bruce Norris‘s Downstate, a play so relentlessly bleak that it makes Sweat look like something by Feydeau. Ms. Intensity arrived about twelve minutes before the lights went down, spent most of those twelve minutes trying to engage the attention of anyone who would listen with a breathless monologue about how dated the decor was in the living-room set onstage in front of us – “I mean, it’s like something out of the¬†nineties” – and then sat through the first half, occasionally emitting a gasp audible three seats away, and fled as soon as the lights went up for the interval. Lesson learned: nobody goes to a group home for sex offenders for the interior decor.

Todd Rosenthal’s set, like just about everything else in Pam MacKinnon‘s extraordinary production, is studiedly, carefully, absolutely naturalistic. There’s no candy-wrapping, no sugar-coating, no sweetening the pill here: this is a grim play about unpleasant people, and it’s hard work to sit through. It’s also absolutely gripping, though you may leave thinking the playwright has stacked the decks in ways that are rather too cynically manipulative. The play takes place in the communal living-room of a group home for sex offenders somewhere in downstate Illinois (the exact location is never named, but it’s emphatically not Chicago, it’s a city large enough to have major chain stores and a bus service, and it’s located along I-55), and is primarily concerned with two confrontations, both involving residents in the home – the first concerning a meeting between an elderly (and paraplegic) sex offender and one of the children he abused, thirty years after the abuse took place, and the second a probation officer’s interrogation of a resident who has violated the terms of his release.

Norris raises a lot of valid questions about the way society treats offenders whose offences are considered beyond the pale, and he’s written a set of plausible, initially-sympathetic characters, not all of whom deserve our sympathy (the most outwardly unsympathetic characters, on first acquaintance, are grown-up abuse victim Andy’s brittle wife Em and convicted abuser Gio’s work colleague Effie, and they’re the only characters we see who are not an abuser or a victim or a police officer). There’s undoubtedly a worthwhile point to be made about how monsters don’t always look or sound like monsters, and while the technique of letting these characters charm us before confronting us with the full horrors of what they did is obvious, it’s also undeniably effective. The play, as I said, is absolutely gripping.

It is, though, also fair to say that there is something cynically mathematical about the way Norris sets up his debate in the play, as if he’s balancing an equation. It’s a little bit too perfectly symmetrical that Dee, who at first seems like he’s been cast as the play’s moral compass, turns out to be the most vehemently unrepentant about what he did (these are not spoilers, you’ll see most of the second act coming twenty minutes before it happens), or that Andy’s abuser Fred has himself, as a result of publicity surrounding his trial for abusing Andy and other children, been the victim of an act of violence that has left him permanently disabled, or that when Andy tries to make Fred read through the reconciliation contract he’s brought for Fred to sign we’re asked to question whether he remembers a significant detail about Fred’s anatomy. The play’s discussions of recidivism, of the different kinds of victimhood, about how how society treats criminals whose crimes it considers unspeakable, about whether whether forcing registered offenders to adhere to sometimes remarkably petty rules and restrictions serves to protect society from predators, are often provocative and always engaging, and the play may very well lead you to question some of your own assumptions; there are times, though, when it feels like you’re watching the playwright deliver a lecture, rather than characters interacting within a scene, and the climactic event of Act Two is telegraphed so obviously that when it happens it’s no particular surprise.

The performances, direction, and design, on the other hand, are flawless. This is a co-production between the National and Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company, the cast is a mixture of British and American actors, the acting is remarkable, and you can’t see the join. First among equals, perhaps, is Cecilia Noble as wearily pragmatic probation officer Ivy, but every beat, every line, every gesture from every single member of the company is right on target. There’s no false theatricality, no sense of anybody pushing too hard or going over the top, just an absolute commitment to finding the emotional truth in every word and every action. This is as fine an ensemble performance as you could hope to see, and there’s no faulting MacKinnon’s direction either. There aren’t many surprises in this play, in terms of the way the plot (slowly) unfolds, but MacKinnon and her cast orchestrate a carefully rising, squirm-inducing line of tension even though you’ll probably have figured out what the play’s big explosion will be half an hour before it arrives.

This kind of collaboration is precisely the sort of work the National ought to be doing – as opposed to something like Hadestown, in which an American commercial producer got to use the National’s taxpayer-funded facilities to get a price-break on a pre-Broadway tryout, and in which the British performers were all relegated to the chorus – and it’s fascinating to get to watch a production staged according to Steppenwolf’s (very recogniseable) aesthetic four thousand miles from Chicago. Yes, Downstate is hard work, and sometimes makes very uncomfortable viewing, and there are some legitimate holes you can pick in Norris’s script – but it’s unusual and very brave for a piece of theatre to confront the ground this play covers head-on, and the actors are astonishing.

And yes, the furniture and decor in that living-room set is dated and shabby. You can’t win ’em all.

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