Credit: Michael Brosilow

“[A]s if life isn’t hard enough without us being deliberately hurtful and cruel to each other.” —Fred, in Downstate

It’s the conventional wisdom that playwrights seldom receive a Pulitzer Prize for the play for which they receive the Pulitzer Prize. The pattern (based on no research at all) is that they get it for the play before that, or maybe the play two plays back. This was my reasoning when Bruce Norris won the 2011 Pulitzer for Clybourne Park, his cunning but not really earth-shattering riff on A Raisin in the Sun. I figured he was being rewarded for The Pain and the Itch, a genuine irritant from 2006.

It never occurred to me that he might be receiving the prize in trust, for a play he hadn’t written yet. But that would seem to be the case, because Downstate would seem to be that play.

Getting its world premiere now at Steppenwolf Theatre in an extraordinary production directed by Pam MacKinnon, Downstate is a nervy drama on a subject nobody wants to talk about. It’s an unsentimental act of compassion and a devastating entertainment, a wry polemic and the darkest of dark comedies. As much as anything, it’s a culmination, expressing Norris’s sensibility more generously than any of his previous work.

The subject that dare not speak its name in Downstate is pedophilia, especially as it’s regarded by our culture and punished by our laws. Four men—Fred, Dee, Gio, and Felix—are convicted sex offenders, having served out sentences for everything from father-daughter incest to carrying on a long-term gay relationship with a teenager. Now they’re nominally free. But inasmuch as they have no one else to take them in—and their category of criminal is, as somebody says, “fucked for life” anyway, what with public registries and ankle monitors and hostile neighbors and laws limiting their range of movement—the men share a group home maintained by a Christian charity.

Like any four strangers thrown together on the basis of connections that don’t include affinity, their relationships are jerry-rigged. The youngest, Gio (Glenn Davis), believes he’s just passing through, given his relatively less-heinous offense and implacable self-optimism. Felix (Eddie Torres) eats Cinnamon Toast Crunch, keeps to his room, and reads the Bible when he isn’t whining his way through interviews with his parole officer (Cecilia Noble). An aging former actor-dancer who reached his pinnacle in a national touring company of Peter Pan, Dee (K. Todd Freeman) has cast himself as housemother, supervising meds intake and even toilet visits while annihilating bullshit with his low-key, high-acid wit.

Then there’s Fred (Francis Guinan). A classic type as pedophiles go, he’s a mild-mannered older gentleman who used to teach piano to prepubescent boys, a couple of whom he abused. Fred went to prison, where another inmate broke his spine; now he putts around the group home in his electric wheelchair, listening to Chopin and snacking on Nutter Butters. At the start of the play he’s entertaining guests of a sort: one of his now-grown former pupils, Andy (Tim Hopper), has tracked him down to confront him with something called a “reconciliation contract,” chronicling Fred’s crime as Andy remembers it. Andy wants Fred to sign the contract in acknowledgment even of the parts Fred recalls differently—because, as Andy tells him, “when you cast doubt on the accuracy of a victim’s story . . . or even a single detail of that story . . . you reexpose them to the original trauma all over again.”

Norris doesn’t minimize the destructive criminality of abuse, though his four pedophiles aren’t above trying to finesse their culpability. What he does, simply, is point out that Fred and the others are human beings who’ve suffered the consequences of their terrible actions with imprisonment, forfeiture, and vast shame. And that, unless society is prepared to kill them outright, it should designate a point at which the punishment can be declared over—if not for the culprits’ sake then for our own, because fetishizing victimhood and demonizing enemies distorts us. As Norris comments in a program Q&A, discussing the present American zeitgeist: “I fear that what gets left out of the current national conversation is any mention of . . . forgiveness. We’d prefer to luxuriate in our righteous hatred for each other right now, in a way that feels cruel and grotesque and tribal.”

Downstate has a problem I’m obliged to point out: a major surprise is telegraphed long, long before it occurs. Still, though the shock is ruined, a sense of fruition remains; after all, Oedipus Rex is rendered no less tragic by our awareness of how it turns out. For the rest, MacKinnon gives us a masterwork featuring stunning performances by Freeman, Hopper, and Torres in particular. And Norris’s familiar iconoclasm has been transformed into something brave.   v