We All Went Down to Amsterdam

Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Bruce Norris’s We All Went Down to Amsterdam, now receiving its world premiere in the Steppenwolf studio, is a play about awareness and the consequences of its absence. Nursing home resident Wood doesn’t know where he is or who his new visitor might be. Dixon, the doctor in charge, also mistakes the visitor’s identity. More important, he’s clueless about the nature of the battle raging between his subordinates. Nurse Steffie and maintenance man Cox, locked in mortal combat over whether his treatment of her constitutes sexual harassment, also have tunnel vision: neither can imagine the impact of his/her conduct on the other. And the unnamed visitor has so little self-awareness that he wonders whether his gestures are the right match for his words and whether he makes a noise when he eats.

All the characters meditate in some way on the issue of awareness without understanding its application to themselves–which is, of course, the point. In a hilarious soliloquy, Cox trashes It’s a Wonderful Life (“It’s about a white man who owns a bank, so right away I’m awash in sympathy”) and proposes a sequel where Jimmy Stewart sees all the bad things that wouldn’t have happened if he’d never been born–the citizens who wouldn’t have been deprived, the kids who wouldn’t have been traumatized. Meanwhile Wood complains about his wife’s constant accusations that he planned to leave, defending his decision to do so by saying, “I told her, ‘You keep talking about it, I’m going to do it!'” Even the painfully self-conscious Man can’t seem to grasp that his habit of secretly recording others’ words makes them feel even more awkward than he does.

It’s a harsh world Norris has created. If we were truly aware of the costs our lives imposed on other people, we wouldn’t be able to function at all. Even leaving aside large social issues–how whites need to ignore the price blacks pay for the lives we lead–every individual makes decisions that injure someone else. Parents, especially, can’t help but hurt their children simply by virtue of being the ones who touch them the most.

Yet there are degrees of awareness, and of responsibility. Wood can’t help his dementia, but it also masks his guilt about having abandoned his wife and son. By contrast, Steffie may be inane (“I’m very, very confused over how a person who himself has been the victim of oppression, which I of course recognize, can be involved in conduct so oppressive to someone like me, who of course is not a racist and I resent the implication that I might be”), but she tries hard to monitor her impact on others–when she smokes, she ducks her head out the window to exhale. Unfortunately good intentions don’t guarantee awareness: Steffie, like Dr. Dixon, is too wrapped up in her own concerns to notice that the Man is not the insurance auditor they’re expecting and that he’s paying an inordinate amount of attention to Wood. At the other extreme is the Man himself, secure in the knowledge that he won’t be held responsible when he acts against Wood because the older man won’t remember anything that takes place.

Fortunately, this is also a play about forgiveness, the only thing that makes it possible to accept responsibility and move forward. Norris insists, though, on the distinction between forgiving and forgetting: when Dr. Dixon proposes that Steffie and Cox forget their past conflicts, the stupidity of the suggestion is highlighted by Dixon’s own obsessive recall of every injury ever done him, from the childhood bullies who pushed him into a colony of fire ants to the neighborhood kids who just today threw eggs at his car.

We All Went Down to Amsterdam (named for the children’s ditty, which Wood struggles to remember) creeps up on its audience. Norris begins the intermissionless play with a half hour of clever but not very meaningful comic chatter, including Dixon’s futile effort to make peace between Steffie and Cox, Wood’s demand from his wheelchair that Cox “fill ‘er up and gimme a quart of oil,” and the Man’s disquisitions on his own failings. But just as these exchanges begin to seem facile, Norris introduces the confrontation between the Man and Wood, fraught with the pain of disappointed expectations and unsatisfied need. This gripping middle section has all the mystery and sudden rage of a Sam Shepard piece: when the Man yells at Wood, “Don’t tell me you don’t know who I am!” he stands up so violently that his chair flies across the stage and crashes into a wall. Then, when that encounter is over and the Man has exited, the tone shifts again. Wood’s soliloquy about his family feels superfluous at first, as though the play had ended in the previous scene and the playwright failed to notice. But when Cox enters for a final moment with Wood, what had begun as brittle comedy and turned corrosive concludes with great tenderness, as human limits are acknowledged and forgiven. It’s a measure of the power of the final scene that when Cox offers the delusional Wood a banana as though it were a telephone on which his wife was calling, some members of the audience laughed while the rest cried.

The performances are uniformly excellent. Tom Irwin’s Man is a classic of creepy normalcy–the sort of closet malefactor about whom the neighbors later say, “He always said hello.” Yet crazy and terrifying as he is, the Man–a role Irwin was born to play–is also every adult who ever thought it might still be possible to get what he needs from a parent. As Wood, Jim Mohr expertly captures the quicksilver mood changes of dementia without playing either for sympathy or cheap laughs. His delight when he answers the Man’s brainteaser–“Who’s the author of The Yellow River? I.P. Freely!”–and his terror when he faces the Man’s fury are both perfectly characteristic of the dependent old; he’s King Lear in a sweatsuit. K. Todd Freeman makes Cox a man of great subtlety: he’ll ridicule Steffie to tears and then say sincerely, “She’s all right–women have a lot to put up with,” or tell Wood that he stinks and then offer him absolution. Stephanie Childers’s Steffie, though largely a comic foil for Cox, maintains a vulnerability that undermines our natural sympathy with her witty adversary. And William Dick makes the hapless Dr. Dixon foolish without making him one-dimensional.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that Amy Morton’s direction is superb. Norris provides plenty of traps and blind alleys, but she navigates them with ease, managing major tone shifts and reversals without breaking a sweat. It’s like watching a world-class surfer at work on the perfect wave.

With last year’s Purple Heart, also produced at the Steppenwolf studio, Norris showed promise. Here he delivers.