I never harbored a particular fear of clowns, but after spending a theatrical Evening With John Wayne Gacy Jr., my predilections just might have changed. The show was produced by Infinite Abyss and staged at the Wilton Theater Factory, and Ronnie Larsen both wrote the play and stars as Gacy.
The character makes his first appearance on the circus-like set in clown garb and full-face make-up, introducing himself as “Pogo The Clown.” That Gacy himself often donned similar clothing to entertain children at a local hospital is one of the many chilling biographical details expertly folded into the script.
It’s thanks to these startling particulars that I have now become inordinately curious about the life of this John Wayne Gacy Jr., the notorious serial killer who famously raped and murdered at least 33 young men and buried most of them in the crawlspace beneath his house. (A few others ended up in the river.)
My preliminary research indicates that the play doesn’t seem to have deviated too far from actual events, and turned up enough other morbidly fascinating information about Gacy that I’d actually be curious to see how the 75-minute show would fare if it were expanded into a longer, more developed piece that incorporated more of it. Then again, maybe one act of this harrowing examination is all most people can take.
In terms of structure, the show reminded me a little of “columbinus,” which also used unconventional theatrical devices to explore the whys of a seemingly unfathomable crime. The show is framed by Gacy’s impending execution, but takes place less in his cell than in his head, alternating between flashback scenes of Gacy’s life and monologues by him and other characters who were affected by his crimes. Absurdly, Gacy claims he is the “34th victim” of his actions and almost completely denies that he has done anything wrong.
In Gacy’s mind, the boys he raped all wanted it, even if they didn’t say so, and the boys he killed were all degenerates with no futures. Gacy also “didn’t” brutally choke one of his victims with his own underwear; the victim just wouldn’t shut up, and somehow the underwear just ended up stuffed down his throat.
Rather than take responsibility for his crimes, Gacy attempts to divert attention to the copious amount of volunteer work he did, or to trivialities intended to attest to his character, like the fact that he was once photographed with First Lady Rosalynn Carter and once named the Springfield Junior Chamber of Commerce’s Man of the Year.
While these details don’t win Gacy much sympathy, they do enhance the pathos of his situation by painting him as someone who at least had the potential for goodness. Perhaps his thirst for approval could have been channeled into something positive had he not been brought up in such an intolerant and punishing environment, one that we learn through flashbacks was dominated by an abusive and homophobic father.
As Gacy, Larsen utterly mastered his character’s bizarre psychology, which was so foreign to me that I couldn’t help but find it darkly compelling. His frantic, fast-paced dialogue betrays his disturbed and unstable thought processes along with his deep desperation to justify and deny what he has done. Larsen also occasionally allows Gacy’s vulnerability and guilt to shine through his almost air-tight defenses, particularly when the character finally must face his execution head-on.
Most of the non-Gacy characters in the play (from what I recall, Larsen doubled just once, as Gacy’s father) were played by the actress Bridgett Haberecht and, on the night I attended, the actor Khail Duggan, who is alternating with actor Richie Stone in the role.
Both performers had a strong presence and broad emotional range, though they perhaps could have made more effort to differentiate the multiple roles they played. Then again, Gacy’s personality is so overwhelming and so alien that maybe the supporting players had to stay a little flatter and more conventional by necessity.
The two nonetheless played a part in some of the play’s most affecting moments, such as when Haberecht, playing Gacy’s ex-wife, realizes that the boys Gacy hired to dig mysterious holes on their property were “literally digging their own graves.” Another particularly harrowing sequence occurs when Duggan recounts and, with help from Larsen, partially reenacts an incident in which Gacy raped and brutally tortured his character before improbably setting him free.
The play’s double-casting also leads to an interesting moment during a mournful monologue by Haberecht about the loss of her son, a son who had been such a good kid and had had so much potential. I initially assumed she was speaking as the mother of one of Gacy’s victims, but it later became clear that Haberecht was speaking as Gacy’s mother, there to remind us of the almost unfathomable fact that the demonic creature we had just witnessed tormenting Duggan’s character was, too, somebody’s son.
The play ends with Gacy’s execution, and though there’s absolutely no circumstance under which Gacy should have been let out of prison once his crimes were discovered, I’m not quite sure that he actually deserved to lose his life. To put a human face on the issue of capital punishment, even such an undeniably awful face brings out the sheer barbarism of the practice. Given the atrocities human beings are capable of, should we really, ever, trust them to play God?
An Evening With John Wayne Gacy Jr. plays only for the rest of this weekend, so feel free to check it out if you think you can handle it! Along with offering great performances, a well-crafted script, and some noteworthy theatrical innovation, it’s guaranteed to make you think, if perhaps about things you’d rather not consider!
In other news, I have finally decided I was important enough to take the “WordPress” out of this blog’s URL and will be telling a story about something or other (theatre, probably) at the New City Players‘ City Speaks event this Thursday. Hope everyone had a good Halloween and enjoys their remaining Day Of The Dead festivities!