‘There’s No Way to Do a Good Job if You’re Judging the Character’

The actor K. Todd Freeman has worked with Steppenwolf Theater since 1993. His roles, however challenging, usually don’t exact a personal toll. Bruce Norris’s incendiary “Downstate,” which debuted at that Chicago theater in 2018, is different.

“After three or four months of doing the play,” Freeman said, “it’s like, OK, I need to stop.”

Like many of Norris’s works (including “Clybourne Park”), “Downstate,” a drama about a group home for men who have committed sexual offenses against children, is in part a provocation, a goad to presumed moral certainties. It focuses on four men: Dee (Freeman), who had sexual contact with a 14-year-old boy; Felix (Eddie Torres), who molested his daughter; Fred (Francis Guinan), a former piano teacher who abused two of his students; and Gio (Glenn Davis), who committed statutory rape.

So inflammatory are its themes that Steppenwolf, having received threats, had to hire additional security for the show’s run. And the production, now at the Off Broadway theater Playwrights Horizons in Manhattan after a subsequent run at London’s National Theater, continues to attract controversy, such that anyone who describes it positively risks being seen as endorsing its subject matter.

From left: Guinan, Eddie Torres (partially obscured), Davis, Susanna Guzman and Freeman in the play, which is at Playwrights Horizons through Dec. 22.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

After the Washington Post critic Peter Marks posted a link on Twitter to his favorable review, conservatives, including Senator Ted Cruz, attacked him. They claimed that the play and by extension the review were sympathetic to pedophiles.

On a recent weekday, at a restaurant near the theater, three of the actors — the Steppenwolf regulars Freeman and Guinan, and Davis, one of the company’s artistic directors — discussed what it takes to imagine men who have done the unimaginable and how much of their own sympathy they can extend. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Did you do much research into men who have offended against children?

FREEMAN There was a literary department at Steppenwolf that provided a great research packet. They gave the laws, what jail time we all would have had, what sort of rehab we would have had, how we got from the crime to this house. And there were documentaries that were made available to us. It was never overwhelming to me.

“I don’t believe in the term ‘monsters’ for human beings. I don’t like the otherness of that,” Freeman said.Credit…Clark Hodgin for The New York Times

Was there anything you learned that surprised you or made you question how the country prosecutes and treats sex offenders?

DAVIS I talked to Bruce about why he wrote the play. He said, “We live in a country in which you can murder someone, go to prison, come out, and have some approximation of a decent life afterward. But if you’re marked with this scarlet letter, this follows you forever.” He said, “I want to explore how we feel about that as a culture.”

GUINAN I was rather shocked by the fact that all you have to do is go online and they’ll tell you exactly where all of these people live. Primarily, it ends up being in really poor neighborhoods. I was just shocked at how many convicted child molesters there are within walking distance of my house in Illinois.

FREEMAN I was like, why isn’t there a registry for murderers? I would like to know when there’s a convicted murderer moving into my neighborhood. That’s a pretty horrible thing, killing people. Why aren’t we up in arms about that as well?

Have these characters fully reckoned with their actions?

GUINAN Fred, while he acknowledges what a terrible thing it was, then says, “I don’t know why the Lord would make me this way.” So I don’t think so. I don’t think he has.

FREEMAN There are people who like to define their lives by their past and their scars. Do they need to? And is it bad if they don’t? It’s easy to judge these people. I don’t believe in the term “monsters” for human beings. I don’t like the otherness of that. It helps us think that we’re better or different — that we could never do that. We all could.

Guinan said that the role has “opened the question of ‘what about the unforgivable in your own life?’ That’s a question I really have not answered for myself.”Credit…Clark Hodgin for The New York Times

Could we? I can’t imagine a circumstance in which I would abuse a child.

FREEMAN I can’t either. But most child abusers have been abused. Maybe if you had that past? We just don’t know.

Did you ever find yourself judging the characters or feeling repulsion for the characters?

FREEMAN That’s just not what you do as a performer. There’s no way to do a good job if you’re judging the character.

DAVIS There’s a part of you that understands, psychologically, that what this character has done is wrong, egregious. And then in honoring the story, honoring the character, you divorce yourself of that judgment. If I’m playing a character and I’m not going as far as I can because of my own judgment, I should probably let someone else have it.

If you were withholding judgment, why then did the play begin to weigh on you?

DAVIS It’s not an easy world to live in every day. You have to prepare yourself for what you’re about to hear and do.

FREEMAN These four walls are basically the characters’ entire world. Trying to believe in the reality of that, just believing in the given circumstances, it’s a weight.

Is it important to you that the audience empathize with these characters?

DAVIS I don’t think we as artists can predetermine the response from the audience. What I owe to the audience is a realistic portrayal of the given circumstance and to let them decide for themselves if they want to feel compassion.

FREEMAN To me, this is not a play about pedophiles. To me, pedophilia is a metaphor for the limits of our compassion, our mercy, our grace.

“Whether I extend a little bit of grace or a lot of grace or no grace at all, my job is simply to portray what this character was thinking, what they were after, why they do what they do,” Davis said.Credit…Clark Hodgin for The New York Times

What do you make of the criticism that this play is sympathetic to pedophilia?

FREEMAN I don’t think there’s a single line in there that suggests that. But it’s seeing them as human.

DAVIS It’s a play that forces you to look at these people outside of the worst thing they’ve ever done. For some people, that’s too much.

What has been the experience of having to extend your own humanity to the most reviled?

DAVIS It’s not any different, in terms of any other character that I might play who does nefarious things. These characters have done particularly egregious acts. But whether I extend a little bit of grace or a lot of grace or no grace at all, my job is simply to portray what this character was thinking, what they were after, why they do what they do. So I don’t know if I would necessarily put it in those terms, that I’m extending my humanity, because it can sound like I’m forgiving them on some level. As an actor, I simply need to get inside of them.

GUINAN For myself, it’s opened the question of “what about the unforgivable in your own life?” That’s a question I really have not answered for myself. Do you let yourself off the hook? And how do you do that?

FREEMAN This is one of the best roles I’ve ever done. Because it is dangerous. And because it is scary. And incendiary. Who wants to do something that’s forgettable and nice?

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