A man sits with his wife on a couch, reading to a much older man. The environment is an unpleasant, large living room in a home shared by several men, so that even a moment that clearly demands privacy has no chance of getting it. The man, named Andy (Tim Hopper), reads a letter about how traumatic experiences from childhood have continued to haunt him, destroyed his equanimity, and he’s had to come to terms with the fact that evil exists, and that it currently sits right in front of him, in a wheelchair.
To which, the meek-seeming man in that wheelchair, named Fred (Francis Guinan), responds: “Are you sure you don’t want some coffee?”
This opening of the provocative but uneven new play “Downstate” at Steppenwolf is classic Bruce Norris, Pulitzer-winning playwright of “Clybourne Park,” whose work often highlights the fact that when met with the most discomfiting situations, we rely on social routines completely ill-fitting the moment.
‘DOWNSTATE’ ★★1⁄2 When: Through Nov. 11 Where: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted Tickets: $20-$99 Info: steppenwolf.org Run time: 2 hours and 25 minutes, with one intermission
It’s funny, of course, the type of dark comedy that infused other Norris plays such as “The Pain and the Itch,” “The Unmentionables,” and “The Qualms.”
Like those plays, “Downstate,” set in a group home for sexual offenders in far-from-Chicago Illinois, pokes not just at the inadequacies of etiquette, but also at social assumptions, beliefs, and — most of all — hypocrisies. In this case, though, rather than Norris turning his satirical eye on his usual target of upper-middle-class liberals, he provokes by staring empathetically at those society has, however justifiably, judged so negatively that their sentences never really end.
Fred, a former piano teacher housed here after serving time for molesting Andy and another student, lives in the home with three other men on the sexual offender registry. Dee (K. Todd Freeman), a former actor whose offense occurred decades ago during a national tour of “Peter Pan,” has become Fred’s semi-caretaker. The fast-talking Gio (Glenn Davis) hopes to get out soon, and bristles at any comparison to his “Sodomite” housemates, his crime having at least involved a female with a fake ID. And then there’s the reclusive Felix (Eddie Torres), whom world-weary probation officer Ivy (Cecilia Noble) interrogates for much of Act I after he didn’t come directly home following his work shift.
None of these men are innocents, and as Ivy notes, “Nobody really wants y’all livin’ anywhere, much less in their neighborhood.” So society makes their lives purposefully difficult, long past their prison terms. They have a strict curfew, wear ankle bracelets to track their movements and are not allowed access to the internet, or even smart phones. They don’t answer the land line when it rings, since it’s probably a threat; the single window in the living room is partially boarded up (guess why), and they’ve taken to keeping a baseball bat by the door for potential protection.
After the opening scene involving Andy, the first act becomes fairly laborious. Ivy’s litany of rules to be followed and her questioning of Felix feel almost entirely like exposition, and despite fine acting the characters of Ivy, Gio and Felix don’t come off as intriguing figures.
It’s only when Andy returns for Act II that Norris returns to form. It’s almost as if a play of his can’t function without the liberal upper-middle-class foil. Not very believably, Andy engages Dee while waiting for Fred to return, and Dee (in a magnificent, clever, subtle performance by Freeman) moves from social pleasantries to prying out Andy’s logic and challenging it.
Andy has to carry the weight of all victims, which is a lot to ask for, and also serve as the justifier of social vengeance. Norris purposely makes Andy preachy and filled with the contemporary vocabulary of victimhood, and Hopper and director Pam McKinnon make some key choices: They make Andy hard (his head is shaved, for example) and deeply angry. Younger, more vulnerable choices here would possibly lead to a more forceful impact as the sequence increases in tension.
Yes, the play gets uncomfortable, but I didn’t feel especially challenged by “Downstate.” A social justice argument — the punishments perhaps don’t fit the crime — doesn’t suit Norris’ biting satirical voice, nor is he particularly strong at examining deep mental anguish, even if the idea is to question how we deal with it. To say his sympathies are misplaced here is not to question the intention, or even his point. It’s to suggest that perhaps he’s too restrained in his depiction of depravity to make us struggle with our sympathies the way I think he wants us to.
Steven Oxman is a local freelance writer.