“Downstate,” directed with distinctive astuteness by Pam MacKinnon, seizes on our reflexive response to those crimes and shifts our emotional focus to the perpetrators. Dwelling collectively in a gaggle residence in downstate Illinois, their actions monitored electronically (and their home windows damaged by irate vandals), 4 males of various age and backgrounds eke out marginal existences in menial jobs and managed routines. The home is like an island whose shores are washed with waves of contempt. Any protest or request is handled by their harried caseworker Ivy (performed with brittle cynicism by Susanna Guzmán) as that of a passenger in steering daring to ask for a clear blanket.
Norris, who received a Pulitzer Prize for “Clybourne Park,” a bracingly humorous play about race and gentrification impressed by “A Raisin within the Solar,” goes right here for an additional societal jugular. And his provocative efforts end in among the finest theater evenings of the yr. (Its pre-covid premiere occurred in 2018 at Steppenwolf Theatre in Norris’s hometown, Chicago.)
He’s loaded the cube to a point in “Downstate,” because the predators who’ve accomplished their jail phrases are depicted not as monsters however relatively as difficult, troubled souls. Felix (Eddie Torres) is a taciturn loner, preserving to himself in a screened-off alcove; Gio (Glenn Davis) is a smarmy operator with a job at an area workplace provide superstore; Dee (Okay. Todd Freeman) is a clearheaded ex-stage performer who’s fiercely protecting of the oldest resident, wheelchair-bound Fred (Francis Guinan), a onetime piano instructor of serene disposition.
There’s no sweeping beneath the threadbare rug in “Downstate” of the heinous offenses for which the boys have been severely punished. We study what every of them has accomplished, and we’re in impact requested to guage for ourselves what magnitude of ongoing torment every deserves. It develops right here as an agonizing ethical query, one which our retributive correctional tradition would relatively not need to debate. And it’s made even thornier by the drama’s most unpleasant character, a sufferer of Fred’s, now grown up and portrayed all too irritatingly nicely by Tim Hopper.
Hopper’s Andy arrives on the residence together with his misguidedly encouraging spouse Em (Sally Murphy) to confront Fred; the playwright can’t disguise his scorn for Andy, who has made a profitable life for himself as a Chicago finance man and now appears intent on some sort of purging reunion with the person who molested him as a toddler on a piano bench. The assembly appears to be a part of Andy’s remedy, which “Downstate” implies could also be advisable however at this level additionally means that it’s an indulgent marinating in self-pity.
We are supposed to word the chasm in Andy and Fred’s circumstances and the maybe overlong gestation of Andy’s want for that suspect expertise, “closure.” Fred’s lack of mobility took place after he was set upon and crushed brutally in jail. Context is all, for as Andy stumbles by a recitation of his psychic ache and struggling, we’ve the bodily proof of the worth that Fred has already paid. Norris’s juxtaposition on this regard feels low cost; there was a approach, I believe, to acknowledge the injury that’s been accomplished to Andy with out judgmentally minimizing it.
Some theatergoers little doubt will resent that Norris selected to light up this delicate topic in a nuanced approach that doesn’t jibe with their very own undiluted revulsion. For those who suspect you’re considered one of these folks, “Downstate” isn’t for you. For a lot of others, it is going to be a shocking demonstration of the facility of narrative artwork to sort out a taboo, to compel us to have a look at a controversial subject from novel views. It’s been the job of drama to perform this for the reason that days of Henrik Ibsen, who in performs resembling “A Doll’s Home” and “Ghosts” executed headlong dives into points that splintered the foundations of standard knowledge.
Ibsen gave us, for example, the now-classic story of a Nineteenth-century housewife, suffocating beneath the alienating management of a domineering husband, and one other a few Norwegian family thrown into turmoil by venereal illness. The matters made the playwright each an admired and infamous determine. It’s more durable as of late to shock an viewers into an exploration of a difficulty with that very same diploma of flammability. However Norris achieves it on this event.
It helps that Norris has written plum components for a cadre of actors so sensitively directed that you just would possibly idiot your self into pondering a documentary is being recorded. Guinan and Freeman are astonishing as Fred and Dee, deeply flawed human beings who persuade us that — even given our sorrow for his or her victims — there could also be a destiny for them aside from endless purgatory. Guzmán offers a splendid account of the not possible burden positioned on a civil servant, to offer some measure of humane steerage to a gaggle of reviled pariahs. And Hopper fantastically manages the project of a personality who appears each entitled to sympathy and unsympathetically entitled.
“Downstate” is proof constructive which 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. By way of Dec. 22 at Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. forty second St., New York. playwrightshorizons.org.