Downstate by Bruce Norris

National Theatre

This play, recently transferred after a successful and award-winning New York run, hits the ground running.

In the first scene, historic child-abuse survivor Andy (Tim Hopper) – in the company of wife Em (Matida Ziegler) – is reading a ‘truth and reconciliation’ document to his elderly convicted abuser, Fred (Francis Guinan). However, what was supposed to be a monumentally important moment of closure – one, presumably, that Andy has feared, avoided and rehearsed for years – soon descends into farce.

Various interruptions spoil his flow, including the entrances of Fred’s three fellow co-habitors, his own wife’s pronouncements, and a phone call from one of the couples’ own children. Interestingly enough, the only person seemingly offering no opposition is Fred.
However, seemingly dissatisfied with the confrontation, the couple leave… at least, initially.

It transpires that Andy and his wife had discovered Fred’s whereabouts due to a new initiative designed to house, surveil and control freed felons originally convicted as ‘sex offenders’; a trade-off is that their full names and whereabouts must be published in the media.

‘funny as hell’

This ‘broad-strokes’ categorisation leads to the four inhabitants – each fitted with location-bracelets – varying greatly; not just in respect to age, ethnicity, background, and the nature of their offences, but in their willingness to admit to – and engage with – their crimes.

Gio (Glenn Davis) is a 20-something Hispanic hustler-with-a-job whose assertion – quite reasonably – is that not all sex-offenders are created equal. His defence:

‘I shouldn’t be here; y’all are degenerate pederasts.
She didn’t disclose her age – it was a one-time deal.’

Dee (K Todd Freeman) is an older black, self-described homosexual, and a veteran of the ‘70s & ‘80s musical-theatre stage; he is also the fixer, soothsayer, and truth-sayer for house (at least regarding other people’s business).
His defence: ‘He loved me’.

Felix (Eddie Torres) is a hard-working, devout Christian, middle-aged Mexican father, and family man.

His defence: ‘I love her’.

Only the aforementioned Fred – an elderly, wheelchair-bound ex-Classical pianist, now greatly diminished by age and the effects of a savage revenge attack – appears able to accept culpability for his own actions. By the end, though, cracks appear in all of their masks, actions and/or protestations.

If these descriptions – and the offences to which they allude – make one feel uncomfortable, they should.

From emotional, ethical and societal unease lie the jewels from which great art is mined, and from where deeper human understanding can shine forth.

Is this ‘great art’? Well, it’s certainly good writing, and a welcome theatrical addition to a (frequently) topical debate / ‘water-cooler rant’ tradition.

It is also – at times – funny as hell!

Director Pam McKinnon deserves great credit for letting the piece – and the audience – breathe… in all the right places, and the use of sound and lighting is subtle and effective.

Yes, that’s right; this is a play about underage sex offenders that is harrowing, poignant, insightful and hilarious… in equal measure, and the balance, in terms of characterisation, dialogue and tone, is beautifully realised. Theatre, be praised!

My only caveat is that a particularly dramatic event – one that is significantly foreshadowed and can be sensed a mile away – feels less impactful than some of the lesser mysteries exposed through candid conversations.

The set is fabulous; a recreation of a shared lounge space, as well as the kitchen, bedroom and exterior spaces beyond the sightlines.

All of the performers are amazing; not least Cecilia Noble, who plays Ivy, a police officer assigned to account for the offenders (as well as 43 others within here jurisdiction).

‘Director Pam McKinnon deserves great credit for letting the piece – and the audience – breathe… in all the right places, and the use of sound and lighting is subtle and effective’

She – as the audience-surrogate – is tough, uncompromising, disgusted and sympathetic in equal measure. In a wonderful performance, she gives world-weary credence to her charge’s humanity. At the same time, she is openly contemptuous of their historic crimes and ascribed pathologies, and lets it be known that her ultimate responsibility is to the law, and to society-at-large.

However, it is to K Todd Freeman that the main acting plaudits must go. His quietly charismatic ‘mother-hen’ Dee holds the piece together, while his measured physicality and insouciant ease with a one-liner is a joy. When questioned as to why a male in desperate need of bladder-relief should be arrested for urinating in public while pregnant women are allowed to ‘flop out their t*****s’ to feed their babies, his reply is priceless: “Maybe if your d*** had some nutritional value…”).

One of several wonderful deliveries within a fabulous performance, at the service of a superb play.

NEED TO KNOW: Downstate is at the National Theatre until 27 April 2019 | BOOK TICKETS