National Theatre, Dorfman – until 27 April 2019
In a co-production with Chicago’s Steppenwolf and the National Theatre, Downstate is a quietly, utterly absorbing play about child abuse. Bruce Norris, previously best known for race drama Clybourne Park takes on social taboo issues without a pause. The premise – a victim visits his abuser in a group house for men who have served prison sentences for child abuse – sounds unwatchably grim, but the reality is entirely different.
Norris handles material and character with a confidence that is a delight to watch, even when the subject matter is ostensibly horrific. This is his point: the demonisation of child abusers as indescribably evil has created draconian laws, at least in the US, that control people for the rest of their lives but protect no-one.
Understanding that convicted abusers are individuals provides much more insight into what they have done, why and whether they will do it again. This perspective is balanced but hardly popular, but Norris convinced with a set of characters who all feel entirely real and, for the most part, deeply banal.
The supposed face of evil is ageing abuser Fred, played with exceptional subtlety by Francis Guinan. Andy (Tim Hopper) was abused by Fred as a boy, and arrives to seek some sort of closure. He has a script, but reality doesn’t follow scripts and his attempts to have his say keep tipping into farce.
The group house – a fine set by Todd Rosenthal recreating institutional decor in minute detail – is shared with men who have committed different types of crime: Dee (the remarkable K. Todd Freeman) with one of the Lost Boys in a touring Peter Pan, Felix ( Eddie Torres) with his daughter, and the intolerable, self-righteous Gio (Glenn Davis) with an underage girl. The various levels of defiance and repentance play out, but accept these people as real because Norris’ dialogue is masterful – subtle, unshowy and completely confident. His presentation of real life through unstylised dialogue is similar to the work of Annie Baker.
The company, with both US and British actors, is flawless. Cecilia Noble as harassed probation officer Ivy, left to manage an unmanageable situation, nearly steals the show and deserves a separate play about her character. Aimee Lee Wood delivers a very funny cameo as manic Staples employee Effie, and Matilda Ziegler provides a remarkable exhibition of middle class entitlement as Andy’s wife Em. Innocence and victimhood is another concern for Norris, who probes arguments around the unquestionable status of the victim. Andy’s self-righteousness is important to the play’s structure, leading us into sympathy with the convicted villains, but it doesn’t change what happened to him. Norris is an expert at confronting the audience with thoughts it would prefer to avoid, and Downstate makes us question our easy assumptions about people we see as ‘other. Pam MacKinnon’s production delivers an evening of the highest quality, a play that asks the most difficult questions.