Tuesday, July 3, 2012

NOT QUITE 'THE' YET - 'The Gacy Play' by Sideshow Theatre Company at Theater Wit

(Photo by Jonathan L. Green)

Personally I have always been a fan of counter-intuitive programming. The common theatrical practice during these scorching summer months is to offer peppy, fancy-free plays as indoor pool party alternatives. And if you can muster up the cash to put on a musical, all the better. But being so inundated with mindless fun, occasionally I need a break for some substance. So, in July, there's something strangely refreshing in seeing a play about a serial killer with an ironic Christmas tree placed perpetually upstage. That show is "The Gacy Play," a new work by Calamity West being presented by Sideshow Theatre Company at Theater Wit. 

Riding the train home, I decided to parse through the entire "John Wayne Gacy, Jr." Wikipedia entry, which, let me tell you, reads like the most grotesque horror novella ever. The scope of Gacy's crimes and the meticulous detail with which he spoke of the atrocities he committed was revolting to take in - especially on public transportation. I can't say that I felt that same sort of terror in "The Gacy Play," in which West effectively humanizes the monster without paying any deference to him. That is a mighty fine line to walk, and this  play treads it with grace and dramatic intelligence. But it could still push the envelope much harder. If this is to be "THE Gacy Play," one must leave the theatre as shaken up as I was while reading Wikipedia on the Metra.

West's scenes, as directed by Jonathan L. Green, are individually strong and emotionally involving, and though the tension doesn't always build to the point of being unbearable, discomfort is still felt. The presence of the thirty-three victims is dramatized as a hideous, pungent smell emanating from the basement. Coming from the cement-covered graves, overfilled with corpses, direct contact with the odor burns the air in Gacy's wife's lungs. The basement, itself, becomes an offstage character as the young boys Gacy hires retreat down there to work long hours. In the play's darkest moments, the killer pries his underage employees with liquor, gaining their trust only to inevitably take advantage of their gullibility.   

Andy Luther, in portraying John Wayne Gacy Jr., is saddled with a task that no one in the audience can fully understand: relating to and sympathizing with someone so feverishly loathed and, who, to his dying day, never repented for his assaults and murders. Gacy's last words were, in fact, "Kiss my ass." Luther navigates this convoluted and frightful territory with psychological dexterity and olympian empathy. He gives Gacy a creepy, jolly giggle that acts as his primary defense mechanism and, for the audience, is a foreboding tell of what's to come. Most probing are his interactions with his employee Dave. Andrew Goetten, though a tad too frenzied, plays Dave with a wisely restrained youthfulness. He's the sort of kid that's plagued by a problem you can't quite figure out.   

In dealing with Gacy's mental and emotional state, West chooses to focus most directly on his relationship with his wife, Carol. Elizabeth B. Murphy imposes an unnatural hostility on Carol from the play's start that gives the character nowhere meaningful to go. The couple's last fight before Carol leaves (It's not a spoiler to reveal that a serial killer's wife leaves him, right?) is anticlimactic largely because Carol has exerted the same degree of volatility the entire play. That final scrimmage is appended by a lengthy denouement that does not adequately fulfill this story. 

In the penultimate scene, through a smartly designed stylistic mechanism in stark contrast with the play's prevailing photorealism, Gacy comes face to face, once again, with three of his young victims. I could not ascertain as to whether they were literal figures or the embodiment of many, but their stories are told through an ethereally lit (Jordan Kardasz), fluidly interspersed conversation with their killer. While initially engrossing, the overlong scene ultimately fails to move, inform, or enlighten. In many respects, as this is the only scene in which his crimes are directly mentioned, I actually found it went too easy on Gacy. And way too easy on the audience. 

Director Green has put the play in an alley configuration, with the audience situated on two sides of the stage. Alley isn't seen very often because of the setup has a certain lecture hall quality that doesn't suit a wide range of material. "The Gacy Play" probably employs it to give Sara Brown's Des Plaines-house set an architecturally homey feeling. The set looks as though not only the fourth wall has been removed, but the second wall as well. The audience's gaze pierces all the way through the unassuming household, but as our gaze quickly passes over the stage so too do the dramatic possibilities. The opposing views from both sections of audience don't allow us to experience the story together, and tension never fully materializes. 

As this is "The Gacy Play"s premiere production, I sincerely hope that the work continues to develop and grow with its subsequent stagings. The play's core is honest and the relationships are pure, but what's missing is that trembling, harrowing, necessary fear. -Johnny Oleksinski

'The Gacy Play' by Sideshow Theatre Company runs at Theater Wit through July 29.