DOWNSTATE at Steppenwolf Theatre Company

DOWNSTATE at Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Pictured (l – r): Tim Hopper and K. Todd Freeman. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Content Warning: This review, and the production discuss sexual assault, sexual assault of minors, and the disbelief of sexual assault survivors. The production contains drug use and a graphic depiction of self-harm.

By Erin Shea Brady

Bruce Norris is a provocative playwright. From THE QUALMS to DOMESTICATED to CLYBOURNE PARK, his work lives in the stuff we don’t talk about. In DOWNSTATE, he dives us deeper into the taboo, asking the audience if we can sympathize with men convicted of sexual assault against minors.

Immediately, I have questions about whether this is the moment in history to program a play that sympathizes with rapists. Led to formidable performances by director Pam McKinnon, all four actors (Glenn Davis, K. Todd Freeman, Francis Guinan, and Eddie Torres) who play sex offenders have moments that warrant our compassion. As painful and uncomfortable as it is to experience, the play humanizes men who, culturally, we dehumanize — exposing their guilt, grief and isolation, the trauma that may have been at the root of their offenses, the continual punishment at the hands of the government and vigilantes. Norris challenges us to explore forgiveness. While I believe that the dehumanization of abusers only perpetuates their violence, putting more distance between us and the legacy of trauma that we are called to address, forgiveness is a tall order — and likely an inappropriate one.

I understand the impulse to write the central conflict of this play — the abused and the abuser — between two men (Tim Hopper and Francis Guinan, respectively). Assuming our inaccurate cultural acceptance of male as neutral, the play takes the gender out of sexual assault, choosing instead to explore the role of “victim” and “perpetrator” (terms which Norris refers to “in quotes” in his program note). Men who are victims/survivors rarely have their stories told and I welcome the exploration, particularly in Tim Hopper’s very capable hands.

However, for a writer who is so gifted with richness in character development that his play has us empathizing with sex offenders, the distribution of Norris’ profound skill and attention makes a statement all on its own — two of the three women in this play are so painfully, problematically, unbelievably underwritten while the men are carefully crafted, dynamic, and painfully, wonderfully dimensional. Both of these women, in their moment, become Norris’ mouthpiece for the #MeToo movement, the play’s pressing cultural backdrop. Though the actors (Matilda Ziegler and Aimee Lou Wood) do well with what they’ve been given, both characters fundamentally lack specificity, intention, and point-of-view, neither amounting to more than a plot device and a punch line. The exception is Ivy, a parole officer who is written (and played by Cecilia Noble) with great truth and complexity.

Every play is not about its women. Every play does not have to be about women (though opportunity for women in prominent roles on Equity stages has been recently proven to be an issue here in Chicago). But this is a play about sexual assault that gives weight and credibility to the perpetrators of assault, and having one-dimensional representation of women making empty assertions about our changing times on the same stage as an assault victim being disbelieved undercuts Norris’ aim to, in his words, extend compassion and visibility to those who are denied it.

At best, this is an oversight and at worst, it’s intentional. Either way, it’s irresponsible in today’s climate. This is a masterful production, with some of the strongest acting and clearest storytelling I’ve seen in months if not years, and a group of artists whom I trust to be in control of the story that they are telling. I trust that their choices are deliberate, and so I question Norris’ own aims and biases.

K. Todd Freeman is one of the finest actors working in this city and in this, he runs the gamut from warm to chilling. Glenn Davis handles Norris’ language deftly and Tim Hopper is, as always, a generous and steadfast scene partner. The scenic design by Todd Rosenthal is appropriately depressing and puts us right where we need to be. Again, this is a masterful production.

I don’t believe in censorship. I don’t believe in protecting ourselves from pain and heartbreak to the point of keeping ourselves from growth and new knowledge. I am excited by work that asks the questions that we are too uncomfortable to ask. I also believe that we have a responsibility, as storytellers, to consider how the stories we put out into the world might do more harm than good in the name of provocative, especially in a time where our cultural narratives are being rightfully questioned. Like Norris, I am wary of anyone who speaks in absolutes — including advocates for #MeToo and other movements toward progress. Human beings are capable of both empathy and accountability and I welcome the challenge that Norris’ play presents.

I believe that there is a version of this play where the good outweighs the harm, in its willingness to look the ugly in the face and try to understand.

As it stands, that is not this version of this play.

DOWNSTATE runs through November 11th. For more information visit steppenwolf.org.

About author

Erin Shea Brady

Erin Shea Brady is a freelance writer, director and is the Artistic Director of No Stakes Theater Project, an organization dedicated to supporting the creative risks of emerging artists. At No Stakes, Erin has directed Sharr White's ANNAPURNA (staged reading) and Jim Cartwright's THE RISE AND FALL OF LITTLE VOICE (Theater Wit, 2015). She has worked on productions at Goodman, TimeLine, A Red Orchid, Jackalope, Northlight, American Blues and Remy Bumppo, and completed a casting internship at Steppenwolf under Erica Daniels. Up next, Erin is directing CABARET as part of No Stakes Theater Project's Actor Initiative, in April 2017. nostakestheaterproject.org

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