Creeps packs a sucker punch worth taking

David Freeman's Creeps still packs a punch.

Adam Grant Warren and Aaron Roderick deliver breakout performances in Creeps.

It’s a stealth operation. I was watching Creeps, admiring the performances and considering the structure of the play when, all of a sudden, the emotional impact hit me and I was stifling sobs.

Creeps, which premiered at Toronto’s Factory Theatre Lab in 1971, introduces us to five guys with cerebral palsy who are labouring in a sheltered workshop. Humiliated by the menial tasks they get paid a pittance to perform—sanding blocks, folding boxes—they hole up in a washroom for the afternoon and refuse to go back to work, despite threats from a Nurse Ratched-like supervisor who keeps banging on the door. 

Playwright David E. Freedman, who died in 2012, lived with CP, and Creeps pulsates with claustrophobic intensity. The playwright rips the belly out of the condescension that keeps these guys down. “My old lady has devoted her entire life to martyrdom”, notes Sam, who uses a chair to get around. And, in a series of surreal scenes, the playwright lampoons the spirit of supposed helping agencies that infantilize the disabled: periodically, Miss Cerebral Palsy and other clowns storm the stage, offering balloon animals, hot dogs, and ice cream.

It’s the interactions among the men that resonate most deeply, though. Tom has ambition: he wants to be a painter. But, perhaps because of internalized loathing, his supposed friends ridicule his aspirations, refusing to believe that Tom might have talent, and insisting that he paints abstracts only because he can’t draw. At the heart of the play lies a debate about the relative values of accommodation and resistance. Jim has a university degree and he has recently been promoted to assisting in the office at the workshop. Sam calls Jim a “white nigger” and accuses him of kissing ass, to which Jim replies, “You can’t make change until you’re in a position to call the shots.” But the other guys want Jim, who is a spokesperson, to activate for accessibility ramps in the subway and all Jim has been able to wrangle is more field trips to Science World.

Freedman is speaking specifically to the politics of the early 70s, of course, and, wisely, director Brian Cochrane has resisted the temptation to update the script, a choice that allows the writing to retain all of its power while losing none of its relevance.

To a person, the cast is excellent. Paul Beckett, who plays Pete, an embittered, would-be carpenter, displays a sure sense of comic timing, as does the playful David Kaye, who takes the role of Michael, a man who lives with mental as well as physical disabilities. Sam talks a big game sexually, but he is wounded by guilt and, in a sharp performance, Brett Harris hones both aspects. I especially want to thank Aaron Roderick (Tom, the painter) and Adam Grant Warren (Jim, the graduate), the bastards who ripped my heart out by playing the text with skill and depth of feeling. Near the end of the evening, there’s a scene between these two that will make the floor fall away beneath you.

The excellent filthy set is by Lauchlin Johnston. Spotting a cockroach in one of the urinals, Pete yells, “There’s livestock in the pisser!” Johnston’s set makes you believe it’s true.

This is my first chance to see a lot of these actors, some of whom live with disabilities. I look forward to enjoying their work again.

CREEPS By David E. Freeman. Directed by Brian Cochrane. A Realwheels Theatre production in the Historic Theatre at The Cultch on Thursday, December 1. Continues until December 10.

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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