It's fitting that Steven Strafford will begin his one-man show "Methtacular!" at the Wit Theater in Lakeview this month. More than a decade ago, when Strafford was in his early 20s, he was fired from that very same theater space (then named the Bailiwick) because the meth addiction he speaks of in his new solo performance piece had by that point completely wrecked his life.
Brooklyn-born and New Jersey bred, Strafford moved to Chicago in 2000 at age 22 to break into theater and quickly found himself immersed in the city's underground culture of sex and drugs. He moved home several years later to begin the recovery process and has since enjoyed a successful career as an actor including roles in "Spamalot," among many others.
Several years ago, Strafford decided to put pen to paper and write down his pain. With the help of director Adam Fitzgerald, "Methtacular!" debuted at the Cincinnati Fringe Festival in 2012 before enjoying a successful run in New York later that year. This month marks its Chicago (where Strafford now lives) debut as part of About Face Theatre's fall lineup.
Ever the showman, Strafford eases the tension of what is at times a harrowing account of his downward spiral at the hands of crystal meth by combining song, humor and masterful storytelling. Just think "This American Life" meets "Cabaret" meets "Postcards from the Edge."
Go: Wednesday-Saturday 7:30 p.m., Sunday 4:30 p.m.; Aug. 21-Sept. 28
Tickets: $20–$35, previews $10-$20. 773-975-8150; theaterwit.org
His elevator pitch for 'Methtacular!': "The show is an honest story of my three years as a crystal meth addict with a lot of jokes, some '[The] Facts of Life' references, opinions about Angela Lansbury, a game show, original music and ultimately, and hopefully, a catharsis for you. I've already had mine."
Why many of the show's toughest moments are recounted through song: "I grew up on musicals. I used to make my younger brother play all of the parts I didn't want in '1776' and I played all the other ones. I figured out [the way] to feel things is through musicals. Also, when you're in the constraints of writing lyrics, there's no room for anything but the truth."
How 'Methtacular!' avoids being preachy: "To be quite honest, I don't think I ever say in the show you shouldn't do crystal meth. I give a lot of reasons why it can lead you down a road that's not so great, but I think it's everyone's personal choice what they can handle and what they're willing to risk in their lives. I do think it's evenhanded."
Where gay male culture could stand to improve: "There was a time where being gay meant feeling your feelings, and I feel like that is not encouraged very much today. It is 'look good' rather than 'feel good.' I'm appreciative of anyone with a great body, but I don't feel like it should be the end-all. You can't be beautiful without going through ugly first."
Why he's happy to be back in Chicago: "My fiancé and I are very happy to be making our lives here. I'm thrilled and hopeful that I'll be a part of this theater community because I love it. I spent 10 years comparing New York to Chicago, searching for that feeling of community. Chicago actors are just as ambitious, but when you're doing the work here, you're thrilled and grateful."
Favorite fan moment thus far: "At the second show at the Cincinnati Fringe Fest, there was a woman in the audience who just looked like she was having the worst time. She looked like she smelled someone's passed gas. It was rough. The next day we went and saw another show and that woman walked past and I said to my director [Adam Fitzgerald], 'There's that woman from last night who hated the show.' She turned around, opens her mouth to speak and cries, and I mean she sobbed. She gave me this huge hug and held onto me a very long time. When she pulled herself together she said, 'I just wanted to tell you I loved your show. My son is in recovery and this is the first time I've been able to laugh about it.' I learned two things: One is that my show had legs to really make a difference in some people's lives, and two is that I'm the worst judge of an audience."
Jason Heidemann is a RedEye special contributor. firstname.lastname@example.org | @redeyechicago