Take a deep breath and try to ruminate calmly on the position playwright Bruce Norris takes in his scintillating new play, “Downstate”: that the punishments inflicted on some pedophiles are so harsh and unrelenting as to be inhumane.
I can tell you with absolute certainty that there is no punishment metered out by a state for pedophiles that is harsh and unrelenting enough for me to consider it inhumane.
For me, inhumane punishment for pedophiles is a goal. It’s a feature, not a bug. Anything less excruciating than a torture like breaking on the wheel or flaying alive is more merciful than pedophiles deserve.
It’s almost impossible to broad-brush the perspective at the heart of this impeccably acted drama without sounding as if one is advocating some extraordinary level of consideration for individuals who have committed unspeakable crimes. And yet Norris proposes a variation on this proposition at off-Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons: He is questioning what degree of compassion should society fairly hold out to those who have served their time for sexual abuse, assault or rape.
None. None whatsoever.
Norris, who won a Pulitzer Prize for “Clybourne Park,” a bracingly funny play about race and gentrification inspired by “A Raisin in the Sun,” goes here for another societal jugular. And his provocative efforts result in one of the best theater evenings of the year. (Its pre-covid premiere occurred in 2018 at Steppenwolf Theatre in Norris’s hometown, Chicago.)
He’s loaded the dice to some degree in “Downstate,” as the predators who’ve completed their prison terms are depicted not as monsters but rather as complicated, troubled souls. Felix (Eddie Torres) is a taciturn loner, keeping to himself in a screened-off alcove. Gio (Glenn Davis) is a smarmy operator with a job at a local office supply superstore. Dee (K. Todd Freeman) is a clearheaded ex-stage performer who is fiercely protective of the oldest resident, wheelchair-bound Fred (Francis Guinan), a onetime piano teacher of serene disposition.
There’s no sweeping under the threadbare rug in “Downstate” of the heinous offenses for which the men have been severely punished. We learn about what each of them has done, and we are in effect asked to judge for ourselves what magnitude of ongoing torment each deserves. It develops here as an agonizing moral question, one that our retributive correctional culture would rather not have to debate.
Some theatergoers no doubt will resent that Norris chose to illuminate this delicate subject in a nuanced way that doesn’t jibe with their own undiluted revulsion. If you suspect you are one of these people, “Downstate” is not for you. For many others, it will be a stunning demonstration of the power of narrative art to tackle a taboo, to compel us to look at a controversial topic from novel perspectives.
It helps that Norris has written plum parts for a cadre of actors so sensitively directed that you might fool yourself into thinking a documentary is being recorded. Guinan and Freeman are astonishing as Fred and Dee, deeply flawed human beings who convince us that — even given our sorrow for their victims — there may be a fate for them other than unending purgatory. Guzmán gives a splendid account of the impossible burden placed on a civil servant, to provide some measure of humane guidance to a group of reviled pariahs. And Hopper superbly manages the assignment of a character who seems both entitled to sympathy and unsympathetically entitled.
“Downstate” is proof positive that you can love a play that turns you inside out.
You will not make me try to emphasize with pedophiles. Even the attempt to do engender compassion for pedophiles is an affront to all that is good and decent.
This playwright and the Washington Post will not normalize sympathy abd compassion for pedophiles.
We need to normalize the grotesque execution of pedophiles.