NEW YORK — 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.
“Downstate,” directed with exceptional astuteness by Pam MacKinnon, seizes on our reflexive response to these crimes and shifts our emotional focus to the perpetrators. Living together in a group home in downstate Illinois, their movements monitored electronically (and their windows broken by irate vandals), four men of diverse age and backgrounds eke out marginal existences in menial jobs and managed routines. The house is like an island whose shores are washed with waves of contempt. Any protest or request is treated by their harried caseworker Ivy (played with brittle cynicism by Susanna Guzmán) as that of a passenger in steerage daring to ask for a clean blanket.
Norris, who won a Pulitzer Prize for “Clybourne Park,” a bracingly funny play about race and gentrification inspired by “A Raisin in the Sun,” goes here for another societal jugular. And his provocative efforts result in one of the best theater evenings of the year. (Its pre-covid premiere occurred in 2018 at Steppenwolf Theatre in Norris’s hometown, Chicago.)
He’s loaded the dice to some degree in “Downstate,” as the predators who’ve completed their prison terms are depicted not as monsters but rather as complicated, troubled souls. Felix (Eddie Torres) is a taciturn loner, keeping to himself in a screened-off alcove. Gio (Glenn Davis) is a smarmy operator with a job at a local office supply superstore. Dee (K. Todd Freeman) is a clearheaded ex-stage performer who is fiercely protective of the oldest resident, wheelchair-bound Fred (Francis Guinan), a onetime piano teacher of serene disposition.
There’s no sweeping under the threadbare rug in “Downstate” of the heinous offenses for which the men have been severely punished. We learn about what each of them has done, and we are in effect asked to judge for ourselves what magnitude of ongoing torment each deserves. It develops here as an agonizing moral question, one that our retributive correctional culture would rather not have to debate. And it is made even thornier by the drama’s most disagreeable character, a victim of Fred’s, now grown up and portrayed all too irritatingly well by Tim Hopper.
Hopper’s Andy arrives at the home with his misguidedly encouraging wife Em (Sally Murphy) to confront Fred. The playwright cannot hide his scorn for Andy, who has made a successful life for himself as a Chicago finance guy and now seems intent on some kind of purging reunion with the man who molested him as a child on a piano bench. The meeting seems to be part of Andy’s therapy, which “Downstate” implies may be advisable but at this point also suggests that it is an indulgent marinating in self-pity.
We are meant to note the chasm in Andy and Fred’s circumstances and the perhaps overlong gestation of Andy’s desire for that suspect experience, “closure.” Fred’s loss of mobility came about after he was set upon and beaten brutally in prison. Context is all, for as Andy stumbles through a recitation of his psychic pain and suffering, we have the physical evidence of the price that Fred has already paid. Norris’s juxtaposition in this regard feels cheap. There was a way, I think, to acknowledge the damage that’s been done to Andy without judgmentally minimizing it.
Some theatergoers no doubt will resent that Norris chose to illuminate this delicate subject in a nuanced way that doesn’t jibe with their own undiluted revulsion. If you suspect you are one of these people, “Downstate” is not for you. For many others, it will be a stunning demonstration of the power of narrative art to tackle a taboo, to compel us to look at a controversial topic from novel perspectives. It’s been the job of drama to accomplish this since the days of Henrik Ibsen, who in plays such as “A Doll’s House” and “Ghosts” executed headlong dives into issues that splintered the foundations of conventional wisdom.
Ibsen gave us, for instance, the now-classic tale of a 19th-century housewife, suffocating under the alienating control of a domineering husband, and another about a Norwegian household thrown into turmoil by venereal disease. The topics made the playwright both an admired and notorious figure. It’s harder these days to shock an audience into an exploration of an issue with that same degree of flammability. But Norris achieves it on this occasion.
It helps that Norris has written plum parts for a cadre of actors so sensitively directed that you might fool yourself into thinking a documentary is being recorded. Guinan and Freeman are astonishing as Fred and Dee, deeply flawed human beings who convince us that — even given our sorrow for their victims — there may be a fate for them other than unending purgatory. Guzmán gives a splendid account of the impossible burden placed on a civil servant, to provide some measure of humane guidance to a group of reviled pariahs. And Hopper superbly manages the assignment of a character who seems both entitled to sympathy and unsympathetically entitled.
“Downstate” is proof positive that you can love a play that turns you inside out.
Downstate, by Bruce Norris. Directed by Pam MacKinnon. Set, Todd Rosenthal; costumes, Clint Ramos; lighting, Adam Silverman; sound, Carolyn Downing. With Gabi Samels, Lori Vega, Matthew J. Harris. About 2 1/2 hours. Through Dec. 22 at Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42nd St., New York. playwrightshorizons.org.