by Alice Cheung, CAS Class of 2021 (Journalism & Sociology)
Bedford Square News, Spring 2019, Issue 2
Above: Francis Guinan (Fred), Glenn Davis (Gio), Celilia Noble (Ivy), Eddie Torres (Felix) and K. Todd Freeman (Dee) in Downstate
Photo by Michael Brosilow.
In downstate Illinois, an old man is sitting in a rickety wheelchair, listening to one of his favourite Chopin CDs, and hovering his shivering hands over the keyboard of an electric piano to mimic the tones. He loves Nutter Butter biscuits and is given to childishly repeating “Shooty shoot shoot!” when he is sad. But who can imagine this white-haired, kindly-looking, so-spoken pensioner was once a piano teacher who raped two of his pupils thirty years ago? In the tragi-comedy, “Downstate,” Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Bruce Norris smartly presents us with sharp questions about how society should treat these offenders, and how long they should suffer, both physically and mentally, for their “evil” acts.
In the play, Fred (Francis Guinan), wears an electronic tag on his right ankle, and lives in a group home with three paedophiles: Gio (Glenn Davis) is a statutory rapist who thinks he shouldn’t have been arrested as the girl lied to him about her age; Dee (K Todd Freeman) is a former dancer who had sex with a 14-year-old actor in a production of “Peter Pan”, and still insists that he gained the boy’s consent in their 2-year relationship; and Felix (Eddie Torres) is a shy and faithful religious believer who sees his sexual harassment of his daughter as a form of love.
It is not the first play about prisoners’ lives and how we should judge prisoners as individuals rather than simply treat them as evil. But unlike “Inside Bitch,” which shows the hilarious side of female prisoners and how they spend their lives in prison, Norris doesn’t exonerate his characters, yet is willing to picture them as human beings: awed, pitiful, emotional and multi-dimensional.
The central confict of “Downstate” is when Bruce Norris smartly introduces a grown-up victim, Andy (Tim Hopper), to confront the four men in the house. Andy and his anxious pushy wife come to visit Fred, simply looking for a closure of the summer when he was 12-year-old, and Fred sexually harassed him. But when he comes for a solo visit later, Andy turns into a hysterical, furious spokesman of all the victims in society. He even mistakenly believes that Fred’s crime towards another pupil victim, Tommy, was done to himself. Though Andy’s experience is sympathetic, he over-victimizes himself, which is also unfair to Fred.
Todd Rosenthal’s set design conveys the theme of “Downstate” simply yet eloquently. A scruffy poster with the highlighted word, “perseverance,” is rudely pasted into the dingy wall. The window of the group home is broken, as it is always pelted with rocks or hit by local residents who are showing their hostility to these “bad guys” in the area.
Interestingly, Chopin’s music is a key motif that runs through the whole play. e opening scene is underscored by the melody of Chopin’s Nocturne op.9 No. 2, which really punches the audience when the terrible fact is revealed that Fred was a paedophile. Fred also plays the CD of Bids Adieu twice, telling the story to everybody how Chopin wrongly fell in love with a teenager, which brings him back to the time when he taught Andy how to play this song and discovered his musical talent.
“Downstate” is not a comfortable and entertaining play. After watching Felix’s emotional collapse, the audience members are confronted by his limp body, and shocked to learn that he had hung himself; they are then forced to look at the hard truth that people who look kind and easy going had committed abominable crimes. However, Norris and director Pam MacKinnon don’t mean only to let people show hatred to the four “villains.” ey have already got the punishment they deserved, and we shouldn’t inflict more mental punishment on them. The final scene when Fred and Dee eventually forgive themselves from their hearts with the background music of another Chopin CD illustrates a fragile reconciliation after experiencing a long-term conflict within their minds. The “evils” forgive themselves, and thus comes the question: how long should a paedophile suffer for his “evil” acts? Remember that we are humans. So are the paedophiles.