Monday, December 12, 2022

Weekly Margin 2022, W51: Downstate

12/07/22: Downstate
What: Playwrights Horizons presents Bruce Norris's new play about four sex offenders living in a group home in downstate Illinois, and a confrontation with a survivor.
And? The thesis of the show, and it walks a very careful line, is not that we should feel sympathy for these sex offenders -- each of whom molested at least one minor -- but that we should recognize they remain human. Or at least that's what I walked out with. Because as charismatic and compelling as the four actors are, we are continually reminded of the abhorrent acts each character has committed, including how unrepentant some of them are about those acts. I understand Norris's intent to shine a light on how broken the system is, the lack of dignity and access available to ex-cons, particularly those without money or white skin. But, as with his Pulitzer-winning Clybourne Park, I find myself questioning some pretty basic and troubling decisions he has made about the stories he wants to tell. (with Clybourne it was his explanation that the impetus to write it stemmed from seeing A Raisin in the Sun and feeling recognition once the white character showed up. I'm paraphrasing, but that's squicky to me) Here, it's not that I'm questioning his depiction of the four offenders, but rather that of Andy, Fred's victim, who is portrayed as self-righteous and unreliable. I'm sorry, but with victims still constantly not being believed when they tell their stories, I am not here for a perpetuation of the narrative of victims lying about their experiences. This isn't the play being edgy. This is the play telling the same infuriating story we keep seeing when victims, especially male victims, come forward. K. Todd Freeman's Dee is the sharpest and cleverest person onstage but his refusal to either own up to his own crimes or give any space to Andy's processing of his trauma, makes him the clear villain of the play to me, though from the structure I'm certain he's the intended protagonist.

It's hard. I don't think I can like this play, well-crafted though it is, because its basic stance is to me not a helpful addition to the discourse. But I can still say this is an impeccable production. Todd Rosenthal's scenic design of a seedy apartment littered with too many insufficient light sources (track lighting, ceiling bowl lights, wall sconces, at least four lamps, and sunlight filtering thinly through vinyl blinds) and in collaboration with Adam Silverman's lighting design add a dim yellow tint to every moment. Freeman, as I mentioned, is absolutely extraordinary (he often is, but it's worth highlighting each time), and the rest of the cast is also great: Francis Guinan as the fuddy-duddy Fred, understudy Matthew J. Harris as the fast-talking glad-handing Gio, Eddie Torres as the broken-hearted reclusive Felix.

Francis Guinan, Glenn Davis, Susanna Guzm√°n, Eddie Torres, and K. Todd
Freeman as Fred, Gio, Ivy, Felix, and Dee. Photo by Joan Marcus.

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