Friday, February 22, 2019

Watching “American Junkie” is Hard, But Worth It

Ian Bond in American Junkie (Studio 19 Photography)
American Junkie
Book-It Repertory Theatre
Through March 10, 2019

Watching someone act out shooting heroin and hearing them describe it is definitely discomfiting. Hearing in the description that they are removing wads of tissues from holes in their body that reach the bone to find flesh decent enough to shoot into could make the hearer feel like running to the bathroom to vomit. Yet, that is part of what is in store for audiences of a searing, yet compelling new work at Book-It Repertory Theatre.

American Junkie, an adaptation of a novel by former junkie, Tom Hansen, by Jane Jones and Kevin McKeon, is an intense experience. If you’re naïve about what junkies go through or experience, this ride will certainly fill in a few blank spots.

So, why would you want to put yourself through that? Because it’s important to understand people who are different from you, or to understand your relative or friend or friend’s friend who is going through something similar. We’re currently living through what is being termed “an opioid crisis,” yet those whose lives are unaffected probably don’t understand why it’s so hard to get ahead of these addiction issues.

And because it’s just damn good theater. The adaptation is a little heavy on the “Book-It style” narration and some of that could just be shown and not said, but this ensemble cast, headed by a spot-on performance from Ian Bond, creates a high level of theatrical reality at every turn.

Bond-as-Hansen performs as his own narrator, moving back and forth through time, to explain how he ended up so sick, so bottomed-out, that he didn’t care if he lived or died anymore. Though, somehow, he seemed to kind-of care if he lost a leg. Yet, he did finally find a way to get off the drug and to make it back to a more-or-less “normal” life.

Hansen’s descriptions are quintessentially ‘90s Washingtonian – he starts his life in Edmonds and wanders through Lynnwood, back to Edmonds and eventually in the band scene in downtown Seattle. There’s even a momentary appearance of drugged-out Kurt Cobain.

There’s also some great tech support from the inventive Tristan Roberson, who we are becoming “used to” as a daring lighting designer, and minimalist, yet effective scenic design from Catherine Cornell. Eerie and absolutely essential sound design from Kyle Thompson which specifically underscores some moments beautifully.

The five ensemble members who turn into family, doctors, band members, girlfriends, drug buyers and sellers, and club-goers, have many moments themselves of compelling characterizations. They are Jesica Avellone, Hazel Rose Gibson, Tim Gouran, Brian Gunter and Marco Adiak Voli. They are well-directed by Jane Jones, who adds touches of the actors sitting around observing Hansen’s difficulties. Jones inserts smart moments like a complete silence after shooting up that extends – motionless – almost too long (in a good way).

It’s a 100-minute evening with no intermission, which is probably a good idea so as not to let audience members decide in the middle that they’ve had enough. But my bet is that you’ll be glad, finally, that you made it to the more uplifting ending. Maybe your empathy and sympathies will have been exercised, as well.

For more information, go to or call 206-216-0833.

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