About Face Theatre at Theater Wit. Written and performed by Steven Strafford. Directed by Adam Fitzgerald. Running time: 1hr 30mins; no intermission.
Theater review by Dan Jakes
Decades before anti-drug agencies helped rebrand methamphetamine and spread awareness about the terrifying scourge that it is, the aphrodisiac and party drug was known in the gay community by a more innocuous name: Tina. That's how it was introduced to actor Steven Strafford during the ’90s, and after his first whiff, the proceeding wasteful years of empty and dangerous sex, lies and theft were all but preordained.
Remarkably, he survived. Many don't. Though only mildewy Man's Country gets a by-name shout out, the Chicago bathhouse where Strafford ostensibly spent most of his years-long downward spiral is just a quick walk down the street and around the corner from the Theater Wit stage where his 90-minute one-man show about that period of his life is being told. That's a big deal, and the symbolism isn't lost in his searing, brutally honest and often funny performance.
The Moth podcast host Dan Kennedy describes the sort of personal narratives told on the live show as those that take at least five years of knowing someone before hearing them at a dinner table. It's not surprising to see that Strafford lists The Moth among his credits, and Methtacular! feels a bit like an elongated version of that show, plus music and video segments. Some of the seedier details Strafford delves into usually require a more intimate relationship to hear (giving oral sex to an obese man for crack, calling in an understudy in order to miss a performance to get high, breaking his mother's heart), but the stylized format helps relay the less palatable details. In a visual segment, Strafford oscillates from head-pounding daylight to blissful nights. A small, horrifying detail like putting up curtains to blacken his windows is made to look practical—by doing so, he helps us get in his headspace.
By nature, addiction defies normal logic, which makes the self-inflicted plight of drug addicts easy to dismiss. As Strafford deftly demonstrates, though, there is logic to be found in these stories, unsound as it may be to sober brains. After all, when something casually wafted under your nose by a cute guy makes you feel like "the masturbatory fantasy of every man [you've] ever known," any choices that follow are understandably skewed. One of the first images we're presented with is Strafford leaving a bathhouse feeling like Belle at the beginning of Beauty and The Beast, waving "Bonjour!" to perplexed passers-by down Halsted. "And then I immediately left to find more."
In hindsight, it's easy to identify that as the climax of his tragic story, which is told several minutes in, but the repercussions take years to manifest. What you don't often get in anti-drug narratives are the highlights in the middle—for Strafford and many of the gay men who share his story, his life appeared normal for a long time. Adventurous, even. Even looking back, when he describes living with his older enablers and sex partners, he does it with a bit of fondness. Dealing with meth, he thought, meant watching The Golden Girls to avoid getting aroused and masturbating himself chaffed:"Lifetime: Television for gay crackheads coming down." The disparity between his perception of reality and that of his family, friends and employers grows slowly—by the time it's a catastrophe, the damage has been done.
What makes Strafford's narrative so compelling is that it's more than a laudable story of recovery; it's a time capsule of a huge part of the gay experience. Director Adam Fitzgerald and About Face Theatre harken back to a near-distant period in the city before name-dropping Grindr and being an out-and-proud gay was mainstream. We hear about a time when homosexuality was pushed to the back pages of the Chicago Reader, when being your gay self was somehow a radical decision. For Strafford, that meant a time of pioneering highs and sacrificial lows. He learned, and survived the trip. For younger gay generations especially, it's a story of a journey worth hearing.