Landmark play Creeps full of dark humour but no pity

It’s hard to say who the creeps are in Creeps, written in 1971 by the late Canadian playwright David Freeman. Certainly the five men disabled by cerebral palsy (CP) and hanging out together in the bathroom of a sheltered workshop are not creeps, although some unenlightened people might have referred to them that way back then. Miss Saunders (Genevieve Fleming) and Mr. Carson (David Bloom), the supervisor and director of the workshop respectively, aren’t creeps; they’re probably well intentioned but are impatient, thoughtless and insensitive. One might argue that Mr. Carson is a creep because he is benefitting from the men’s unpaid labour — but how much money is there in the blocks of wood that the men endlessly sand? And what of the Rotary Club, the Shriners and the various churches and charity groups that try to make life bearable for the disabled? Entertaining the men with clowns and balloons is condescending, but chances are, if the Shriners and Rotarians could figure out how to make life better for these CP sufferers, they would.

Described as being savagely funny, Creeps’ humour is more like self-deprecating desperation. But what neither the play nor the characters ask for is pity.

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Playwright Freeman, who died in 2012 at the age of 67, was himself afflicted with CP but was encouraged as a young man to write short stories and articles. He spent some time in a sheltered workshop (now called supervised workplaces), and clearly Creeps and the character named Jim grew out of his experience. Opening in 1971 at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre, Creeps shocked audiences with its rawness and dark humour; the play is now viewed as a trailblazer in Canadian theatre history.

It says a lot for the performances under the direction of Brian Cochrane that although the press release says that only three of the five actors are disabled, it actually looks as if all five of them are. Aaron Roderick, mildly disabled with a neurological condition, makes an amazing debut performance in his portrayal of Tom, a would be artist who just needs — and asks for — a nudge from Jim (Adam Grant Warren) to leave the workshop and try to make a go of it as an artist. They could, Tom says, get a little apartment together; he could paint, Jim could write, life could be great. Always ready to throw cold water on everything is bitter, cynical Sam (Brett Harris). Pragmatic Pete (Paul Beckett) thinks they should go for it, but for himself, he seems to have made peace with his situation. A free turkey dinner at the Spastic Club is OK with him. “They want to make life easier for me,” he says.

Fantasy visits by a couple of clowns played by Fleming and David Kaye are bathed in red light and occur fleetingly. We’re not sure they’ve actually happened or not — even though the men are left holding balloon animals. Kaye also plays Michael, the character most severely disabled in both body and mind. I had to check with the publicist to confirm that Kaye was not actually disabled so authentic was his performance.

Set, light and props designer Lauchlin Johnston transforms the heritage stage of the Cultch into a grubby men’s washroom with a couple of urinals and a couple of stalls — neither of which is wide enough to accommodate Sam’s wheelchair. The whole set looks like it could use a good scrubbing down with Lysol, and I’m guessing the performers all go home and have a shower.

This production is, apparently, the only production of Creeps that has included disabled performers, and it reaffirms one of RealWheels’ core values: inclusivenessin working with professionally trained artists with disabilities.

Have things improved since the writing of this play? Well, no one would call the disabled “creeps” now, but there’s still a long way to go.

For more reviews, go to joledingham.ca.

Creeps is at the Cultch until Dec. 10. For tickets, call 604-251-1363 or go to thecultch.com.

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