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Downstate, the latest work by Pulitzer-winning playwright Bruce Norris, ranks as one of the most intense pieces of drama that I’ve ever seen. Almost three weeks after seeing this play in previews at Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago, I still find myself thinking about it almost daily.
Downstate is set in a group home for convicted sex offenders in downstate Illinois. Four men, registered sex offenders who have served their time, but still have to be monitored, share the home and Norris takes the daunting task of daring to potray these men as real human beings, obviously seriously flawed, but full-fledged people who push the limits of sympathy with the audience.
Norris goes out on a limb in humanizing the last people that society is allowed to despise and dispose of, and that remarkable feat almost obscures the underlying themes of the play. The characters are very real, but are also archetypes, with the offenders practicing varying stages of denial about what they did. He also demonstrates the restrictions placed on the members of the group home as we see how they are barred from owning smartphones or accessing the internet, and limited in where they can legally go to shop or work. The details of all this are eye-opening.