BWW Review: Sympathy for the Devil in Steppenwolf's DOWNSTATE

BWW Review: Sympathy for the Devil in Steppenwolf's DOWNSTATE
Photo by Michael Brosilow

Based on his prior works, Playwright Bruce Norris seemingly relishes nothing more than to push the buttons of the liberal, cultural elite (aka most theatergoers). He is in rare form in DOWNSTATE. The show is well-acted and directed with tact and skill by Pam MacKinnon.

The show, about a group home for sex offenders in an unnamed community in Southwest Illinois, was bound to be controversial simply because it challenges audiences to see pedophiles as people too. At several points of the show's two-and-a-half-hour run time, you will squirm uncomfortably. I suspect Norris wouldn't have it any other way.

And while theater is at its best when it challenges our most deeply-held beliefs, the play is not for everybody. If you are a survivor of childhood sexual molestation or know of someone who is a survivor, the show definitely requires a trigger warning.

DOWNSTATE opens as Fred (Francis Guinan), a former piano teacher and child molester who is now wheelchair bound after a fellow inmate broke his spine, is being confronted by one of his victims. Now grown up, Andy (Tim Hopper) is there with his supportive spouse (Matilda Ziegler). Angry, sad and still haunted by the experience, he seeks restitution in the form of Fred's signature on a confession for a crime that Fred has already been convicted.

The trio are trying to have a private conversation. No small feat given the size of the group home and that the rest of the men in it are never out of earshot. Also sharing the house with Fred: Dee (K. Todd Freeman) is a former stage actor convicted of molesting a 14 year-old boy whom he was touring with in a national tour of "Peter Pan." He insists the sorted affair -which lasted several years -was consensual. Comments he makes later in the play cast some doubt on that, though.

Another housemate, Gio (Glenn Davis), a fast-talking Staples worker who dreams of striking it rich in the business world, is at the home for statutory rape (he insists the girl showed him fake ID that showed her to be older). He makes much ado over the fact that he is a level one, low-risk offender (the others are level three) all the while fraternizing with a younger co-worker (indicating he is either pretty stupid or on his way to being a repeat offender).

The last member of the house prefers to keep to himself. Felix (Eddie Torres) molested his preteen daughter, still believing his actions were a sign of love and affection. Devoutly religious, he appears deeply convicted.

Parole officer Ivy (Cecilia Noble who strikes the perfect balance of jaded police office and caring human being) is there to keep all the men in line and in check. She mentions at one point that every criminal sees themselves as a victim and it manages to soften the blow of the show's central premise that these men continue to be punished unjustly long after they have served their time.

Our sympathies are supposed to be with soft-spoken, broken Fred. He calmly acknowledges Andy's memories, though never really apologizes nor accepts personal responsibility. A scene in which Fred plays a recorded work by Chopin while talking about how much talent he thought Andy had as a boy and and how sad he is that the grown man no longer plays the instrument can be viewed as nostalgia.

Or it could be a calculated move on Fred's part. Molestation isn't just about sex. It's also about power. The act of playing the specific piece of music when the molestation happened takes Andy back to the place when he was most vulnerable. Is it a thoughtless and careless action by Fred or is it a way of Fred attempting to exert the control he once had over Andy?

Dee even wonders why Andy can't simply "get over it." It is a particularly cold and callous thing to say to a survivor, showing that he (and, let's face it, the rest of the denizens of "Downstate") lack a shred of empathy. Nor do they show any remorse for what they have done. Laws are unjust. Accusers' memories are faulty. And each and every single one of them feels that they themselves are victims of a vengeful society that would like nothing more than for them to just go away. Are they owed any compassion?

Norris goes out of his way to lay the claim that survivors of molestation have all the power and are always believed (even when their memories are susceptible). I cannot say if this is something that Norris truly believes or if it merely exists as a plot device.

Norris is, or course, free to write about whatever he would like. Given that the show has already extended its run, there is certain an audience eager to hear what he has to say on the matter.

Frankly, this assertion about survivors rings hollow. Survivors of sexual abuse at the hands of Catholic priests were certainly not in a position of power nor were they universally believed.

As a sibling of a survivor of child molestation, I can personally attest that, at least in my sibling's case, a survivor would also love nothing more than to "get over it." Like Andy, my sibling has gone through countless hours of therapy, been prescribed various pills to medicate the situation away and yet still suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome that can be triggered at the slightest thing (such as a piano piece played at a calculated moment). The scars of the molestation have never fully healed and probably never will.

Given that 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys will be a victim of child sexual abuse according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (and that statistic is based on reported cases and since much of the abuse goes unreported, the numbers are probably higher especially with boys due to the stigma of perceived homosexuality), I doubt I am the only one to see that show that will either know a survivor or be one.

To lend voice -even in fictional form-to those that perpetrated horrific acts that survivors and their loved ones may never fully recover from seems callous and calculative. To us, Norris' play is likely to push buttons for which we just might believe Norris has no justifiable right nor reason to push.

DOWNSTATE runs in Steppenwolf Theatre Company's Upstairs Theatre through Nov. 18. Tickets ($20-$109) are now on sale at 312-335-1650 or

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From This Author Misha Davenport

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