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People who were sentient by the 1980s, if they are invited to consider the word crawlspace, will think of John Wayne Gacy and the marathon spectacle that began when police searched Gacy’s house looking for one boy and found 29 bodies stuffed in his crawlspace. Prosecution, conviction, and incarceration conclude with his execution in 1994, but the intense interest in telling and retelling the story has barely abated. Crawlspace, the musical, lives in that space, but, in a retelling with modest dramatic license, brings the audience along into unexpected places. I was a Chicagoan from 1987-1999 and I did not recognize many of the details that were no more than thinly disguised.


What I attended was a readers’ theater production. Crawlspace was developed over many years and, even with the unadorned presentation, I knew I was watching a work of unusual refinement. As such a story deserves, it is unrelentingly dark and the moral complexity is rendered in sharp detail. I found the music to be impossible to categorize, a score fit for a completely unlikely musical story. At every turn I felt I was given new insight. Gacy’s early abuse and sexual torment obviously left him a hot mess inside, yet outwardly he seemed to have righted his life even after extended trouble with the law. His first marriage produced two children but ended in a messy divorce. A second marriage also ended in divorce, but I was more shocked in the moment by the sadistic cruelty that finally drove her away (highlight for me, she sings, “I Don’t Really Know You”), than by the steady stream of cold-blooded murders in the background.


A parallel story told in vignettes throughout the play, is of forensic psychologist Dr. Judy Matthewson (a fictionalized version of Helen Morrison who testified for the defense at Gacy’s trial) who interviews Gacy repeatedly, trying to make sense of his multiple personalities and psychopathic traits. I missed early clues about her past but in the second act Gacy cruelly confronts Matthewson about the times she was abused growing up. He may have been trying to get her to present a better defense, but he also seemed to be taking sadistic pleasure in making her confront buried memories.


The final ambiguity we process is that Matthewson (and Morrison in real life) received Gacy’s brain after his execution. She expected it must contain some abnormalities to account for so much aberrant behavior, but there were none. Fleetingly we must consider that Gacy could have been any of us.


It is unfortunate that not all excellent works find the recognition they should have. I saw Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins and remember wondering if it had been the work of an unknown writer would it have seen the light of day? I was far more engaged by Crawlspace and hope it finds the success it deserves.

© 2023 CC BY-SA 4.0 by Steven Hollingsworth

Steven Hollingsworth, Chattanooga, TN
Staged Reading: Ensemble Theatre of Chattanooga, July 2023

 I had the pleasure to be involved in a 2023 Workshop hosted by Ensemble Theatre of Chattanooga in which I was given the opportunity to portray the role of "Young Johnny."


From hearing the initial concept of the musical, I was sold. This feeling only grew as I descended into the crawlspace myself with this role. When it came to the story, I think the blending of fact and fiction ultimately lead to a stronger and more cohesive narrative. This method also helps to provide anonymity to victims and their families from being forever linked to their worst moments. It also provides a strong dichotomy between how trauma affects the trajectory of human life while also showing that even the worst of us started out as someone's child. This, in turn, presents the idea of just how complex humans are. It is not simply a binary of "I am bad therefore unloved" and "I am good therefore loved." This box we find ourselves in also includes "I am bad and loved." We are all the sum of out parts. Those parts include the positive and well-intentioned, but also the darkness we keep from others.


With this method in in mind, I think the show succeeds in not minimizing nor absolving the horrific nature of the crimes committed. It merely opens the conversation to explore how we as a society view mental health and approach all forms of trauma. This show is full of heavy concepts that may not be for everyone. However, if you're willing to have these hard conversations, then be prepared to look beneath the surface and step into the mind of John Wayne Gacy.

Joel Sanchez-Avantes, Chattanooga, TN
Staged Reading: Ensemble Theatre of Chattanooga, July 2023

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