Prolific young Chicago playwright Calamity West’s latest tackles a subject who came before her time, one who might seem like part of our mythic past. But John Wayne Gacy Jr. was also, as dramaturg Jeffrey Gardner says in a program note, “a Chicagoan: a living, breathing man who inhabited this city very, very recently.” West’s psychological study of Gacy keeps that fact at the forefront. Her series of scenes is set entirely in his Norwood Park home around Christmas 1975, when Gacy’s second wife, Carol, and her two daughters lived there with him, and only the first three of his young male victims were buried in the crawl space.
The playwright avoids the sensational in her attempt to suss out what made Gacy tick; her John never shows up in clown makeup. But in Andy Luther’s tremendously meticulous performance, he does seem to be wearing an invisible mask. In each of his dealings with his increasingly uneasy wife (Elizabeth B. Murphy), friends and the latest young drifter he’s hired to work for him (Andrew Goetten), Luther’s John seems to be searching like a hunt-and-peck typist for the proper, acceptably masculine behavior. West is after the John Wayne Gacy who was a gregarious, well-liked businessman, active in local politics and popular in the Jaycees. She and director Jonathan L. Green can’t really get under his hood, despite Luther’s compellingly creepy work, and the balance between naturalism and fantasy feels off (John has a pair of clunky imagined conversations with his ultra-manly namesake, for one). But if they don’t get at why he raped and killed 33 young men over six years, they hit on the equally unsettling question of why no one caught on.