‘Downstate’ review – A tough, challenging and powerful test of humanity and sympathy

★★★★ – Victimisation and punishment are closely examined in this unsettling, thought-provoking and intense co-production from Steppenwolf Theatre Company and the National Theatre.

‘Enjoyable’ is certainly not the best word to describe Pulitzer Prize winner Bruce Norris’ new play Downstate, yet that does not mean to say that the playwright’s script is not impactful and hard-hitting.

Four convicted paedophiles share a house in downstate Illinois. Their neighbours have already blown out one of the windows with a shotgun, and there’s a baseball bat by the door should it be needed.

As the play opens, a man named Andy (Tim Hopper) arrives to confront his abuser. Fred, a former piano tutor and simpleton, listens on calmly, with a lackadaisical personality that’s nothing but frustrating to endure. Francis Guinan does an incredible job with what is essentially basic and limited dialogue.

The bold, precise portrayals extend to Fred’s fellow housemates. K Todd Freeman stars as the witty and sarcastic Dee, Glenn Davis as the overly optimistic Gio, and Eddie Torres as quiet character Felix. Elsewhere actresses Cecilia Noble (the group’s parole officer, Ivy) and Aimee Lou Wood (Gio’s energetic co-worker Effie) give respectable performances in supporting roles.

A similar meticulousness is apparent in Pam MacKinnon’s direction, as she navigates the characters around Todd Rosenthal’s detailed living room set design. The play refuses to pause and stand still as a result of MacKinnon’s masterful management of pacing. The performers bounce off each other at rapid speed, most notably in a scene where Ivy interrogates one of the offenders, Felix about breaching his parole. Throughout, play runs at full speed before grinding to a shuddering halt, yet not once giving audience members respite from the controversial subject matter.

Running at full speed before grinding to a juddering halt, Downstate flows seamlessly between the somber, the humorous and the sinister. MacKinnon’s direction moulds a tone that never once interferes with the balance of comedy and severity, or offers audience a moment of respite. That only comes when the curtain falls, and viewers are delivered a shocking, harsh blow to stomach, and they’re left with difficult questions to consider.

This review is of a preview performance. Downstate is now playing at the Dorfman Theatre until 27 April.

Production Images: Michael Brosilow.

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