Steppenwolf's new drama 'Downstate' explores the lives of sex offenders

  • Ensemble members Francis Guinan and K. Todd Freeman rehearse for "Downstate," premiering at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company.

    Ensemble members Francis Guinan and K. Todd Freeman rehearse for "Downstate," premiering at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Courtesy of Steppenwolf Theatre Company

 
 
Posted9/18/2018 2:00 AM

Elmhurst resident and longtime Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble member Francis Guinan is both excited and apprehensive to be starring in Bruce Norris' new drama "Downstate," which opens Thursday, Sept. 20.

It's a co-production with the National Theatre of Great Britain, so Guinan is looking forward to making his London stage debut when "Downstate" crosses the pond this spring.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

But in the play, Guinan plays Fred Nyberg, a paroled sex offender living with three others convicted of crimes against minors. The main drama erupts when a man arrives at their group home, located about 280 miles south of Chicago, to confront his childhood abuser.

"It's a Bruce Norris play, so it's like two and a half hours with people you ordinarily wouldn't be caught dead with," Guinan joked. "But the insights you get from that are often more revelatory than from much more easily tolerable characters."

Indeed Norris, who officially became an ensemble member in 2014, has built a reputation as a controversial playwright with Steppenwolf premieres such as "We All Went Down to Amsterdam" (2003), "The Pain and the Itch" (2004) and "The Unmentionables" (2006). Norris' New York premieres -- including "Domesticated" (2013) and "Clybourne Park" (winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the 2012 Tony Award for Best Play) -- also stoked debate.

Playwright Bruce Norris, foreground, rehearses with actor K. Todd Freeman for "Downstate," premiering at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company.
Playwright Bruce Norris, foreground, rehearses with actor K. Todd Freeman for "Downstate," premiering at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company. - Courtesy of Steppenwolf Theatre Company
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"Downstate" will likely be divisive.

"It's a very provocative play," said Tony Award-winning director Pam MacKinnon, who helmed both Steppenwolf's 2014 premiere of Norris' swingers comedy "The Qualms" and the company's 2011 revival of Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe?"

"Bruce's agenda with this play is a tricky one for the audience," MacKinnon said. "He's writing about a group of very specifically drawn characters, but a group that we as a society have labeled as very specifically no longer worthy of being a part of society."

Guinan is familiar with downstate Illinois because his wife is originally from Carrier Mills, about 35 miles east of Carbondale. Guinan said Norris and MacKinnon cast him in "Downstate" because "I can make pretty much anybody sympathetic."

"(Fred) comes off as very, very inoffensive and pleasant," Guinan said. "But then again under certain situations he becomes something of a monster."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

In "Downstate," Norris tackles a number of issues related to sex offenders. A patchwork of perimeter laws dictate where parolees can live. Plus, online registries and social media can stoke incidents of vigilantism and mob thinking.

Ensemble member Francis Guinan rehearses for "Downstate," premiering at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company.
Ensemble member Francis Guinan rehearses for "Downstate," premiering at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company. - Courtesy of Steppenwolf Theatre Company

"Why do people want to restrict discussion of certain topics?" Norris asked. "The essence of liberalism is tolerance and mercy, and now here we are in a period in which I feel that my allies on the left have become incredibly socially conservative."

Norris is grateful to have his work back on Steppenwolf's stage and to be working with fellow ensemble members including Guinan, Glenn Davis, K. Todd Freeman and Tim Hopper. "Downstate" also features a few British actors and designers in the mix.

Norris says the past few years have been sad ones at Steppenwolf because of the deaths of former artistic director Martha Lavey and ensemble members Mariann Mayberry, John Mahoney and Glenne Headley.

"I would not have any career ... if it weren't for Martha. She lifted me out of the gutter sort of when I was in a low point of my life and offered me to write a play," Norris said. "Based on that, I now work as a playwright and it's all due to her."

• • •

"Downstate"

Location: Upstairs Theatre at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago, (312) 335-1650 or steppenwolf.org

Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday (also Sunday, Sept. 23, Oct. 7 and 14), 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday (6 p.m. Sept. 30), 2 p.m. Wednesday matinees from Oct. 17-31; through Nov. 11

Tickets: $20-$99

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