His plays often churn up unsettling complexities and contradictions of modern living, and do so with ruthless and strenuous scrutiny. His new play, co-produced by the National and Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, is certainly no different. Downstate thoughtfully but bleakly charts the lives of child-sex offenders in America and interrogates the roles they play for each other, for their victims, and for larger society.
‘Downstate’ is an Illinois catch-all term that refers to the rest of the state outside Chicago, and Norris employs the title both to locate the play in rural Illinois and to emphasise the peripheral quality of the lives of four child-sex abusers living together in a group home. The eldest of the three, Fred (Francis Guinan), is a soft-spoken and placid former piano teacher who suffers from arthritis and who, after being attacked in prison, is bound to a powered wheelchair. When he is confronted by one of his victims Andy (Tim Hopper), now a financial planner with a kid of his own, Fred and the rest of the house reconcile with their past actions and their present circumstances.
Norris writes with compassion for all his characters, and powerfully asks the audience to empathise with members of society often castigated as fundamentally evil. Their house is often vandalized, and each member casts a different shadow on the issue: boisterous and charismatic Gio (Glenn Davis) argues against his conviction for statutory rape for having sex with an underage woman, Diana-Ross fanatic and ex-dancer Dee (K. Todd Freeman) believes his long-term ‘relationship’ with a 14-year-old boy was valid and consensual, and introvert Felix (Eddie Torres) tries to reconnect with his daughter.
While the acting is remarkable, particularly from Todd Freeman and Torres, and the writing is certainly well-crafted, there is a mechanical quality to Downstate that feels too too polished. At times, characters become overt mouthpieces to discuss issues like paedophilia or the justice system to such an extent that scenes become laboured. By casting such a wide net to tackle such provocative subject matter, something is lost in the storytelling.
Downstate is an absorbing but uneasy watch, even with moments of humour from Cecilia Noble’s Ivy and Aimee Lou Wood’s Effie. Still, Norris offers much to think about. With particular rigour and a considered approach, Downstate astutely examines the effects of making monsters out of sex offenders.
|Downstate, National Theatre review
|National Theatre, South Bank, London, SE1 9PX | MAP
12 Mar 19 – 27 Apr 19, 7:30 PM – 9:30 PM
|£15 - £65
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