Chicago Reviews

Steppenwolf’s “Downstate” examines pedophilia in a new way

Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member; photo by Michael Brosilow.

In our society, there is probably no class of citizens more reviled than pedophiles. Despite (or maybe because of) the fact that we understand that this abhorrent predilection is not something they can actually control, we punish them not only with the prison time they deserve but also with a lifelong online registry that alerts others when they are in the neighborhood. It is, as one character in Steppenwolf’s new play Downstate says, a form of double jeopardy, but it is one that society happily accepts in order to protect itself and its children from predators. The practical result of this registry is that released pedophiles often end up living in group homes set up by the state or church, since they are not accepted elsewhere. Such a group home is the focus for Downstate, which, while not being an apologia for these men (and they almost always are men), does at least ask us to see their world from both sides. And if that thought makes you gag a bit, you’re probably right in the target audience for this show.

The thing that playwright Bruce Norris and director Pat MacKinnon are working for in this show is a new sense of understanding. We can never really understand what propels certain people not only to have these feelings but to act upon them, but Norris tries in Downstate to show that they are not the monsters that we usually think of them as. They are human beings who, through their own actions, have found themselves in a situation that is about as bad as any non-prison life can get. Norris is also careful to show the pain and suffering their victims go through; he is not playing that element down at all. Tim Hopper’s intense turn as Andy, a former child-victim of Francis Guinan’s now wheelchair-bound pedophile Fred, illustrates how this is the kind of pain that never wears off. Fred, for his part, comes across as an entirely affable older man. He listens carefully to Andy as he manages a long-in-coming confrontation with his molester, and takes everything his victim dishes out with not attempt to explain. He is a complete contradiction: internally he is indeed the monster, but that monster is hidden within the frame of a man you’d have great conversations with at a church picnic.

And that is the whole point: whether or not “forgiveness” is possible, it is possible to see these people as...people. And that’s one of the most impressive parts of the play. There are four pedophiles here, and we end up feeling some sympathy for each one of them. Dee (K. Todd Freeman) is an older gay man who has served time for a long-term affair he had with a young teen. It’s a reprehensible act but, Norris argues, is it one that should be punished for life? Freeman’s performance, part wise man and part angry “victim” himself, is outstanding: despite the fact that the focus is on Andy and Fred, Dee becomes the real emotional center of the house, partly because of the degree to which he helps Fred but also because, despite ourselves, we can understand his sense of injustice at what he continues to see as an act of love.

Another housemate, Felix (Eddie Torres), is called out by his parole officer (Cecilia Noble) for having molested his own daughter. Gio (Glenn Davis), who feels he is unjustly lumped in with “real” pedophiles (his crime was statutory rape of a sixteen-year-old whose fake ID said she was eighteen) and simply wants to be released to try to rebuild his life, is easily the most volatile part of the mix. Noble is particularly effective as the exhausted, frustrated peace officer who completely understands the need for this kind of perpetual punishment for people whose actions she finds vile but at the same time derives no pleasure in being the one to have to bring the hammer down.  

MacKinnon has brought out excellent performances from her cast and makes fine use of the wide set created by Todd Rosenthal in Steppenwolf’s Upstairs Theatre. In scenes in which Andy is seated in the living room and Dee is at the table, they might be in separate universes. Any time Dee addresses him, Andy seems shocked to find someone else in the room. And the fact that it is another pedophile hardly makes him open to genial conversation. But it is the direct confrontation scenes between Andy and Fred that the piece finds its real power. These two look each other in the face, just feet away from each other, and the tension is palpable. What Fred did to Andy in his youth is unconscionable, but the play asks the question, what does society do now? We can’t execute these people for they have taken no lives (though it is definitely argued in the play that the lives they have ravaged are often as good as dead anyway). We can’t keep them in prison forever either. But is it fair that we punish them twice for the same crime? And would it be fair to the rest of society if we didn’t?

Downstate is a play with lots of questions and no answers, though with its subject matter your wouldn’t really expect any. There are no easy solutions to the problems Norris and MacKinnon pose here, but if they succeed in at least breaking down the notion that these people are less than human they’ve accomplished a kind of miracle. This is a powerful, controversial topic and our responses are quite naturally visceral. Getting an audience even to think of pedophiles in a new way has to require some sort of playwriting and directing genius. One thing is for sure: after seeing Downstate, you’ll be thinking and talking about it for quite some time.

Downstate is now playing at the Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago until Nov 18. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and at theatreinchicago.com.

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