Review Roundup: Critics Weigh In On Steppenwolf's DOWNSTATE

Review Roundup: Critics Weigh In On Steppenwolf's DOWNSTATESteppenwolf Theatre Company opens its 43rd season with a fiery, provocative new work from Pulitzer Prize-winning ensemble member Bruce Norris, directed by Tony Award winner Pam MacKinnon. Downstate is a co-commission and co-production with The National Theatre of Great Britain. This exciting collaboration premieres at Steppenwolf and transfers to the National Theatre in spring 2019 featuring an American and British cast and creative team. Previews began September 20, 2018, opening is September 30 at 6pm and the production runs through November 11, 2018 in the Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N Halsted St. Single tickets ($20-$99) are now on sale through Audience Services at 312-335-1650 or steppenwolf.org.

Downstate features Steppenwolf ensemble members Glenn Davis (Gio); K. Todd Freeman (Dee); Tim Hopper (Andy); and Francis Guinan (Fred) along with Cecilia Noble(Ivy), Eddie Torres (Felix), Aimee Lou Wood (Effie) and Matilda Ziegler (Em). Elyakeem Avraham, Maura Kidwell and Nate Whelden round out the cast (Cops).

In downstate Illinois, four men convicted of sex crimes against minors share a group home where they live out their lives in the shadow of the crimes they committed. A man shows up to confront his childhood abuser-but does he want closure or retribution? This fiery, provocative new play by Pulitzer Prize-winning ensemble member Bruce Norris zeroes in on the limits of our compassion as it questions what happens when society deems anyone beyond forgiveness.

Known for his darkly comic takes on contemporary issues, Bruce Norris asks to whom we are willing to give compassion. Norris shares, "In the case of this group of people who've committed crimes and served their time, we're not trying to take the easy out and say, 'These are monsters. We're done with them. We can dispose of them.' They are humans, and they are alive. And they're in a bad situation from the mistakes they've made. Now what do we do?'"

Let's see what the critics have to say!

Jesse Green, NY Times: It's a lot to stomach, and rightly so. One of the things the theater is supposed to do is force us to face incompatible and frankly unpopular ideas. Not that Mr. Norris is discrediting victims overall, anymore than he is valorizing pedophilia (though Chopin, who fell in love with a teenager, is not an idle choice of music). Rather, in making the most extreme argument possible, he is consigning everyone, with a wicked sneer, to the same mire. We're all human - aren't we?

Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune: The play opened, of course, days after Bill Cosby, a convicted abuser, was led away in handcuffs, and less than 48 hours after America was riven by a Supreme Court confirmation hearing that asked whether allegations of abuse should be allowed to derail the career of an enraged nominee. You might argue this is the best of all possible moments for a fearless play determined to make the anti-Panglossian case that nothing in jurisprudence, in life, is as binary as it might seem. Or you might argue, as those who have stayed silent pay the price of coming forward, that this is the very worst moment imaginable. You will have to see for yourself.

Debra Davy, Splash Mags: Even before the multi-dimensional tragic denouement, this reviewer was imbued with a sense of protectiveness towards the "villains" and a feeling of outraged frustration with Andy for getting "stuck" in self-righteousness. Most importantly, the play turned the tables on my prior knee-jerk reaction to view these offenders as pariahs. I came away believing that we are all caught in this human web together, that we all suffer in the struggles of being human, that it would be best if we could all forgive our selves and each other, and that atonement must come from a higher place.

Lawrence Bommer, Stage and Cinema: Shedding a harsh light on a situation most of us prefer shrouded in darkness, Norris's 150-minute world premiere - ably abetted by director Pam MacKinnon - takes us inside a downstate half-way home for sex offenders operated by Lutheran Social Services of Illinois. Understandably unpopular with their "not in my backyard" neighbors, it's seen broken windows and scrawled graffiti. A bat is kept at the door to repel invaders. For these ankle-monitored inmates, the exclusion area - schools and churches and the like - keeps expanding, which means they have to travel further and further for groceries (no alcohol, of course).

Becky Sarwate, The Broadway Blog: The unnaturally natural aesthetic of the production is assisted by scenic design from Todd Rosenthal, who adds subtle touches to the set that convey the dissonance between group home routine (a keyboard for Fred, a weight bench for Gio) and violence (a broken window shot out by a neighbor's angry rifle, Dee's shattered Diana Ross poster). It's an understated marvel.

Tony Adler, Chicago Reader: Downstate has a problem I'm obliged to point out: a major surprise is telegraphed long, long before it occurs. Still, though the shock is ruined, a sense of fruition remains; after all, Oedipus Rex is rendered no less tragic by our awareness of how it turns out. For the rest, MacKinnon gives us a masterwork featuring stunning performances by Freeman, Hopper, and Torres in particular. And Norris's familiar iconoclasm has been transformed into something brave.

Kevin Green, New City Stage: Is "Downstate" a well-acted and well-written humanizing portrait of a modern-day leper colony? Sure. Is it a nuanced discussion about pedophilia free of ulterior motives that would undercut the moral ground upon which its scribe alleges to stand? Well, that's what comment sections and post-show discussions are for. Personally, I can't shake the feeling that Norris is justifying a personal belief system that he barely maintains by treating a disenfranchised and complicated social group like a prop, which is the height of modern politics. His play feels calculated, a word not unjustifiably applied to his previous work. Another friend suggested that this play was the least Bruce Norris has ever been in his own way. I think she's right but I am uneasy about what the outcome suggests. If this false equivocation of power dynamics is how Bruce Norris really feels, then I think it's appropriate to ask how responsible it is to program his work. Given that this play has already been gifted rave reviews from publications of considerable more clout and reach than this one and is slated to move to London's National Theatre after it wraps locally, that suggestion already feels depressingly moot.

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