FringeReview UK 2019
Pam MacKinnon directs Downstate, in this co-production of The National with Chicago’s Steppenwolf Company. Todd Rosenthal’s set is lit by Adam Silverman, and Carolyn Dowling’s sound, Clint Ramos’ down-at-heel costume design integrates with it. At the NT Dorfman Till April 27th.
‘It’s so nice to see you again, Andy.’ Fred offers Andy drinks. When you match that against Andy’s trembling remorseless ‘You are a fundamentally evil person… I fantasise about how I would kill you’ you realize the Reconciliation document Andy’s wife has brought might never be signed off. Andy will never get closure at this rate.
Bruce Norris came to prominence with the Pulitzer-winning Clynebourne Park addressing racism, and latterly with the baggy picaresque The Low Road seen at the Royal Court in 2013. This patient ambush is a huge return to form for Norris, whose Downstate in Pam MacKinnon’s taut direction is co-produced by the National and Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company. That’s where an armed guard was apparently posted outside last October.
We’re in a sex-offender’s group home in Illinois. Four men have served their time but live under restrictions. They have visitors. Tim Hopper’s Andy was thirty years ago the victim of Francis Guinan’s Fred. In a wavering light baritone Guinan projects the mix of Fred’s gentle remorse with reflex denials. It’s in this opening as Andy and his nervy pushy wife Em confront the now wheelchair-bound Fred. We later find out about that wheelchair.
Todd Rosenthal’s immaculate set is a commentary on institutional living, but equally a study in farce with characters shouting from other rooms, crossing, disrupting, invading fragile space. It’s nominally a living room with sofa, TV and tower CDs stage right, a kitchen upstage centre and toilet and corridor to the right of that; with a curious lift-door concertina to another character Felix’s bedroom; proclaiming this space was converted from something. In front of that the dining table invites more confession. It’s lit by Adam Silverman with unwavering artificial light and one remorseless dawn. Carolyn Dowling’s clean plangent sound, Clint Ramos’ down-at-heel costume design integrate to a hallucinatory verismo.
In case art offers any salvation Norris ensures two offenders are former artists. Fred taught the piano to his ‘special’ pupils then abused them. He still recalls how Andy played Chopin’s ‘Raindrop’ Prelude so instinctively, and he’s played it twice himself here, then significantly at the end chooses another. He refuses to see how whatever gift Andy had has been crushed, another driver to suicidal depression.
The most rational of all, ex-musicals dance captain Dee (a vivid, sashaying K Todd Freeman) declares his ‘sex’ with a fourteen-year-old on a Peter Pan tour (a ‘Lost Boy’ indeed who died of AIDS) was consensual. Yet he assumes the play’s moral compass.
Norris ensures each character’s story is traced through to a crisis. Gio (Glenn Davis), a statutory rapist, is one of two who quote the bible – something more prevalent in the U. S. than here, another blanket. Bullish fast-talking and confident of making it big, he claims he ‘merely’ had sex with an underage girl who now – he justifies himself – lives in a caravan. His young pizza-delivery co-worker Effie affirms being on the sex register’s no big deal: ‘So’s my cousin Brianna’ inflecting permission, gender parity and reinforcing the homophobic superiority Gio and Felix feel towards gay paedophiles.
There’s a further colloquy, between Eddie Torres’ weeping, bible-riffing Felix and Probation Officer Ivy, in Cecilia Noble’s monumentally weary performance: a mix of exasperation, patience and compassion that’s prepared to push at the rules. The way Ivy tricks out Felix’s slight rule-breaking to a revelation that he’s trying to contact the daughter he sexually abused and is barred from contacting, is one of the ways Norris flips over sympathy. As the climax to Act One it’s excoriating, stripping Felix’s excuses and Ivy’s resources. And it’s an interruption that decides things; you fear the outcome.
As Dee points out to Andy who’s returned, there’s a reason he left his mobile phone. He’s not even told his wife this time. There’s enormous significance attached to the way both Dee and the finally-arriving Fred ask nonchalantly after Andy’s own child, if they enjoyed the park. It’s small-talk designed to obliviate its own subtext. And it’s proved by Fred’s response to that document’s text. The concatenation of people and incidents means even Effie and Gio are drawn in to a sudden abyss. The denouement and postlude too are exquisitely wrought. If that’s not an obscene word.
Aimee Lou Wood as Gio’s ADHD-‘I-do-not-consent-to-that-question’ co-worker Effie with her individual medication, and Matilda Ziegler as Andy’s unforgiving wife with her devastating valedictory, underscore a note-perfect cast.
Norris – and the programme’s essays – ask what the limits of punishment are. He allows a cruel dig at victimhood too. ‘Worse than death?’ Dee taunts Andy at one point, incredulous at his hierarchy of suffering when Dee’s own destruction is the more comprehensive. And Em’s even prepared to believe in an afterlife now since ‘some kind of higher power might be able to figure (punishment) out’.
Yet as we’re also told, re-offence rates are low, children aren’t made safer by these restrictions, cutting offenders out of society makes it more likely they’ll re-offend. Yet do any of these characters fully admit their guilt? Are there degrees as self-justifying Gio asserts and his friend affirms? The age of consent, we’re reminded, is often higher in the U.S. Yes but… Nor are we told whether Fred’s denial of one act can be dismissed.
If Maurice Sandford’s autobiographical Groomed blisters with authority as the victim’s story, Norris flips this over. It’s a pity Andy’s narrative is so remorseless, despite the point where Dee breaks him down. Norris would have had enormous difficulty integrating a fuller confrontation; it could have skewed focus further. It might have been worth trying. There are plays that try both – Lucy Prebble’s debut The Sugar Syndrome (2003) or David Harrower’s even more disturbing Blackbird (2005) straddle the territory with a terrible intimacy. But the originality of Downstate lies in exploring a group condition, with all its denials and the different way the inmates snap. And reinforce each other. It’s a masterly, unsettling play that in this production never puts a foot wrong. And wrong-foots us all.