Steven Strafford was supposed to be live onstage at Berwyn’s 16th Street Theater this month with a remount of Methtacular!, his solo chronicle of his three-year bout with meth addiction. But then COVID-19 happened, and the theater decided to go with a ticketed streaming version of a show recorded last year at Steppenwolf’s LookOut series.
Then again, given the story Strafford has to tell, it’s amazing he’s alive at all. And at least this time, he’s missing a show for a reason other than being on a meth binge in a bathhouse for several days. (Spoiler alert: he lost that acting gig.)
Strafford’s been performing this tale at theaters around the country for a few years, but the performance you can see through 16th Street’s website (directed by Adam Fitzgerald and with William TN Hall providing piano accompaniment for Strafford’s musical numbers) doesn’t feel like a guy phoning it in. (HMS Media, which has been recording live performances in Chicago for years, did the admirable honors here; the visual and aural quality is excellent.) Rather, he exudes exuberance, leavened with David Sedaris–like dashes of self-deprecating snark. “I love formulas,” Strafford tells us early on. “Like, Tuesday plus crystal meth equals Friday!”
Refreshingly, Strafford doesn’t seem to have a backstory of deep trauma for why he fell into addiction as a young actor in Chicago in the early aughts. (If you’ve been around the theater scene awhile, you can have fun playing fill-in-the-blanks with the shows and collaborators he mentions.) His family seems solid, at least judging by what we see of his loving mother in video interviews spliced into the show. Unlike a lot of young gay people, Strafford wasn’t kicked out when he came out. His addiction, like that of so many others, came instead from a place of garden-variety nagging self-doubt, despite his obvious talents. Take a hit of meth, feel more confident and attractive. What could go wrong?
Through a series of increasingly fraught relationships with friends, lovers, and combinations thereof—including a nebbishy teacher who grows violent and a gun-toting dealer who lives surrounded by filth and feral cats—Strafford takes us down the rabbit hole of his sex-and-drugs obsession. By working in clever musical bits and audience interaction, including a game show called “What’s My Meth?,” Strafford finds ways to break down the navel-gazing nature of the autobiographical solo form. (The correct answer to a question in the latter is “Take apart the toaster and find out where the voice is coming from.”)
In these days of enforced isolation, maybe a solo show about addiction seems a perilous entertainment choice for some. But Strafford, who beat his meth demon by what he can only describe as luck (though he admits he will never get over wanting to do drugs), offers a surprisingly sweet and hopeful conclusion for anyone stuck at home, looking at themselves in the mirror: there is nothing wrong with you. v