Last fall Bruce Norris’s Off-Broadway play Downstate had theatregoers abuzz with its provocative and unsettling portrait of a halfway house for pedophiles. It was just one of a number of recent New York theatre productions—including the Broadway revival of Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive last spring and Frank J. Avella’s Off-Broadway Vatican Falls last fall—that set out to tell a story involving the sexual abuse of children.
The continued relevance of such narratives is clear. According to the Rape, Incest & Abuse National Network, one in nine girls will be abused before they turn 18. But presenting a story about abuse today is a tremendous challenge: The topic is viscerally repellent. Some 20 years after the Boston Globe uncovered the widespread abuse of children and vulnerable adults in the Catholic Church, and 10 years after the #MeToo movement began, calling out the sexual harassment and assault of women (and also in some cases children), tales of abuse are sadly so familiar at this point that people may assume there’s nothing more to be said, and no ambiguity to explore.
Yet in the face of these enormous obstacles, each of these plays has found a fresh way to address the scourge of abuse.
‘Vatican Falls’: Catharsis
At first, Vatican Falls, produced by High Voltage Productions at the Tank, presents as a straightforward abuse narrative. Protagonist Riccardo belongs to a support group for victims of clergy sexual abuse, but struggles to say anything about what happened to him. Over the course of the play, we journey with him through his memories as he slowly comes to confront the trauma he’s been through.
Unlike other such tales, Avella places Riccardo’s story within the context of a broader political thriller. Riccardo’s support group, we discover, is actually one cell in a massive worldwide network of abuse survivors who have decided to bring down the Vatican. As they begin to enact their plan—which begins with hacking the Vatican and ends with worldwide murder and destruction—the Vatican has its own operatives at work trying to stop the coup.
The choice to locate Riccardo’s story within an international crime drama is unexpected and riveting. It gives his story and those of his peers a sense of propulsion and activity that abuse narratives don’t normally have.
With that comes what seems like an opportunity for meaningful catharsis for the audience. In stories about abuse, catharsis for the victim often consists of getting to the point where they are finally able to face or bring to light what happened to them. Near the end of Vatican Falls, Riccardo is able to have a very difficult conversation with his mother. Even so, those moments can be hard for an audience to draw satisfaction from; having walked with a character on such a painful journey, we crave some kind of justice, or at least somewhere to direct our outrage and sadness.
As Riccardo comes to grips with his own past, he becomes more and more resistant to the path of vengeance being pursued by his peers. But intriguingly, for us its appeal remains undeniable (and thrilling). By the end of the play Avella has both given us what we want and highlighted our desire for it, leaving us with important and uncomfortable questions about our own responses to injustice, and the seductive dangers of catharsis.
‘How I Learned to Drive’: Identification and Distance
The most significant challenge of an abuse story, really, is how to help audience members who have not been abused to truly appreciate the experience of a victim, while at the same time providing a space for those who have been abused that is safe and meaningful, instead of re-traumatizing. It’s a dauntingly fine line to walk.
In How I Learned to Drive, Paula Vogel sets outs to overcome this problem through a variety of techniques. She opens the play with an act of abuse—a risky choice, given how uncomfortable every audience member will be with such a moment, for different reasons. But the way that she presents the moment unexpectedly draws us all in.
In the scene, teenage protagonist Li’l Bit sits beside her uncle Peck in what is understood to be the front seat of a car. Peck soon begins to stroke his niece’s breasts. But the two never actually touch or look at each other. Peck instead gestures in front of him, as though she is standing there, rather than sitting beside him.
As a result, the act of abuse is rendered less onstage than it is within our imaginations. In a sense the gap in the action that Vogel creates through that staging draws those who have not been abused to create their own version of Li’l Bit’s experience. And at the same time, because this act of violence is only representational—i.e., no one is actually being touched—there is paradoxically also a degree of safety.
As the play goes on, Vogel keeps finding ways to invite the audience into the experience of Li’l Bit in ways that are emotionally impactful yet also leave room for audience members who have known the violence of abuse to feel protected. For instance, she gives the play a mostly reversed chronology; rather than each next scene descending further into the violence of the beginning, we keep moving farther away from it, considering instead its origins.
At the same time, with the exception of Peck, Vogel has all of the other characters played by the same three actors, which keeps us focused on (and to some extent trapped within) the relationship between Li’l Bit and Peck. Vogel also keeps placing their interactions within the broader sexualized context of the world in which they live, a world everyone in the audience will recognize. Li’l Bit’s mother gives her advice on how to handle her liquor with men, in what is an unspoken acknowledgement that men are going to rape you if you’re not careful; schoolmates tease Li’l Bit about the size of her breasts; sex is an ongoing and persistent source of humor within the family.
At some point the familiarity and ubiquity of these messages—with the underlying lesson that men have permission to do anything, while women and girls are just sexual objects—becomes quietly overwhelming. Like Li’l Bit (and Peck too), we have the sense that there is no escaping the sexual expectations—and implicit sexual violence—of this world.
After what seems like the natural conclusion of the play—Li’l Bit having cast Peck off once and for all, while also empathizing with the way he too is trapped in this world (and was no doubt a victim of abuse himself)—Vogel unexpectedly gives us one last scene of abuse. It’s the earliest moment in their relationship; Li’l Bit is only 11. In some ways it is a repetition of the opening: A girl and her uncle are in the car driving. But Peck’s assault is more invasive, and this time it is actually staged. Li’l Bit sits on his lap and he violates her, while one of the chorus members, playing her voice, begs for him to stop.
It’s a truly horrifying moment, moreso because nothing signaled that it was coming. Its intended effect, I think, is to unite the audience. Having been slowly, subtly led into a greater sense of the lived experience of abuse, audience members for whom it was previously unknown are now ready to contend with the violence and surprise that victims know all too well—the sense of being so shocked and violated that you are literally unmoored from yourself, your body and your self ripped in two.
It’s an impossibly delicate balance that Vogel is striving for here, and it’s enormously dependent upon the execution. When it succeeds, ideally those in the audience who have known the horrific experience of abuse will find themselves surrounded by a profound sense of empathy and understanding—a sense that in this moment they are not alone.
‘Downstate’: What the Audience Wants
In both Vatican Falls and How I Learned to Drive, the context of the story becomes a significant driver in drawing the audience in. The same proves true in Bruce Norris’ Downstate, though in some ways to a radically different effect.
The play opens with Andy, a victim of abuse, sitting with his wife Em and confronting Fred, the music teacher who assaulted him when he was a boy, as Andy reads a prepared statement about how Fred’s actions affected him. It’s a familiar moment in abuse stories—the way many of them end—and it’s filled with gravitas. Or it would be, except that Andy’s words keep getting interrupted by other male sex offenders with whom Fred lives in a group home.
What we quickly discover is that Norris has placed this story within a sort of apartment sitcom. There’s the loud-mouthed, inconsiderate roommate; the one who never comes out of his room; the crazy neighbors who cause problems (in this case, that includes throwing rocks through their windows); the landlord (i.e., the officer assigned to them) who keeps bringing them bad news (they can no longer go to the grocery they’ve been using). At the center of the household are Fred and Dee, who acts as sort of the house mom, running errands for people, taking care of their home, and looking out for Fred, who he clearly cares about.
To say that this context is confrontational is an understatement. Yet the tropes of the apartment sitcom are so familiar and so clearly map onto these men’s predicaments that it doesn’t take long before we are on board with Norris’s vision.
That doesn’t diminish our discomfort. In fact, the more charming (and often funny) the men are, the more unsettled we become, and the more we yearn for some kind of clarity—some kind of peeling away of their facades to reveal the true faces of these men, who perpetrated such terrible acts of abuse. By making these characters and their situation so relatable, Norris in a sense heightens our desire for a catharsis, here understood as a revelation of truth.
That is precisely the position that Andy is in. Throughout the play, he keeps coming back to the home, trying to get Fred to let down his kindly mask and give Andy the moment of truth he craves. But Fred never provides it; in fact, he never lets on that there is actually some deeper, darker version of him hiding within.
At the very end of the play, events have spiraled out of control in truly terrible ways, Dee breaks down in tears, and it seems like maybe we might be getting the moment Andy has been denied—the moment of truth that Norris has made us so keenly aware that we want.
Instead the play’s final beats completely pull the rug out from under us. Dee reveals that he is crying not out of any sense of guilt about his crimes, but because he’s so frustrated with his own rage. And as much as we might like to, it’s hard not to appreciate what he means; over the course of the play Norris has shown us that the situation of these men’s lives is relentless. No matter how comical things may seem on the surface, there’s always another attack by neighbors to contend with, another visit from the police, another traumatic experience they have to face.
Then, Fred, in what plays almost like a Catholic confessional scene, tells Dee he’s forgiven. This too is profoundly disconcerting. The idea of a pedophile being an agent of grace seems like a kind of blasphemy. And at the same time the moment forces us to consider: Is there anyone else in the entire world who can understand Dee’s life the way Fred can? Truly, could anyone but another pedophile—someone who knows from the inside the things that Dee actually carries—offer Dee a forgiveness that is at all real?
Then, as if our heads aren’t already spinning, Fred plays a record to try and help Dee, but the song he plays is one that we know reminds him of Andy.
Why was Dee actually crying? Was it just about his rage, or was it, as we might hope, in regret over his crimes? Likewise, how are we to understand one pedophile presented as a kind of priest, a means of redemption, for another? Is there any way to view Fred’s love for that particular record as anything other than monstrous? And what are we to make of these men’s existence? Having spent two and a half hours within it, are we truly comfortable with the prison to which society has condemned them?
Just as the situation in which Norris sets this story makes us more aware of our need for some kind of catharsis, some kind of understanding, the radical ambiguity of its ending reveals that there is none to be had. When it comes to abuse stories, catharsis is a fool’s errand. The only meaningful truth is that there can be no satisfying ending.
Knowing that, Norris challenges us to consider: Now what will we do?
Jim McDermott (he/him) is a freelance writer for magazines and the screen, and an editor at America magazine.
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