Dan Savage is famous the world over for many reasons. Most know Savage from his syndicated sex-advice column, Savage Love, and also as an essayist and author ( Skipping Towards Gomorrah, The Kid ). Savage is also an activist both noble ( The "It Gets Better" anti-bullying campaign created with his husband, Terry Miller ) and confrontationally mischievous ( with an Internet search of "Spreading Santorum" providing more clues ).
But lesser-known job titles for a polymath like Savage include playwright and director, since he was a major part of the former Seattle queer troupe known as Greek Active that was notorious in the 1990s for camping up and burlesquing theatrical classics. Chicago audiences are just about to find out how Savage shapes up as a playwright since Hell in a Handbag Productions is about to produce the Midwest premiere of his 2012 camp comedy MIRACLE!
The play was created when Seattle's struggling Intiman Theatre asked Savage to direct a play of his own choosing in the style of his Greek Active days for a summer festival. Savage settled on spoofing William Gibson's Hellen Keller drama The Miracle Worker for a number of reasons.
"It was partially inspired by an actual drag queen here in Seattle 25 years ago. There was a big amateur drag circuit and there was this one queen who was amazing who was deaf and couldn't really lip-sync," Savage said during a recent telephone interview. "The first time you saw her you thought, 'What is she doing?' And then everybody just fell in love with her resolve, her courage, her tenacity to just 'do it the way I do it.'"
Importantly, Savage said the performer, identified by other sources as Jackie Scott, didn't become just a deaf mascot of sorts but was accepted fully for who she was. And Savage also wanted to shake up audiences' complacency when it comes to a familiar classic like The Miracle Worker.
"It's one of those plays that audiences really don't watch," Savage said. "Audiences sort of soak in a warm bath of self-regard because here we are, we're being good, dutiful, high-minded literate people at this play and we're going to wait until we get to that miracle scene and then we're going to pat ourselves on our back and go home."
That's why Savage tackled MIRACLE! to camp up the original drama and reset it in gay and lesbian bars to make audiences pay attention and second-guess exactly what might happen. Hence the drama now focuses on the deaf and blind drag queen "Helen Stellar" ( Steve Love ), who is forced by other drag queens like her mother, Crystal Pain ( David Cerda ), to wear a shock collar around her neck to prevent her from falling off the stage. Thankfully, the lesbian activist Annie Sullivan ( Elizabeth Lesinski ) arrives to teach Helen how to communicate.
On top of all the crude jokes and outrageous drag humor of MIRACLE!, Savage said he still aims to maintain the message of The Miracle Worker. And even though many openly criticized Savage for being disrespectful to the deaf and blind communities, Savage pointed out that practically all those critics didn't actually see the production.
"Deaf organizations came to interpreted performances in Seattle and they loved it and had nothing but praise for it," Savage said, noting that he had a late aunt who was a disability-rights activist and that many in the deaf and blind communities are often treated with "unctuous seriousness." "Here was a show where a deaf-blind person was the star, and it was the kind of show where deaf people aren't usually allowed to be a part of," he said. "Why can't deaf characters and deaf people be portrayed in camp theater?"
Hell in a Handbag Artistic Director David Cerda first became aware of MIRACLE! when playwright Philip Dawkins and former Handbag ensemble member Tracy Hyland both alerted him to the 2012 Seattle production and pointed out perfect it would be for the company. So Cerda hounded Savage to get the rights to MIRACLE!, and Savage himself revised it for the Chicago premiere. Savage even flew to Chicago on his own dime to observe rehearsals and to give notes.
"The guy knows his stuff," said Cerda, adding that Savage is truly a renaissance man since he had so many helpful suggestions when it came to comic bits, lighting and even choreography.
"He was really cool and asked what input we wanted because he didn't want to overstep boundaries," said Cerda. "And we were like, 'just let us have it.' And he's Dan Savage, so he was very direct even though his persona is not like what a lot of people would expect from his column when he can be very brash. He's a good Catholic boy from Chicago who is very polite, well-mannered and very funny."
"The cast is amazing," said Savage when asked about the Chicago rehearsals for "MIRACLE!" "I think it's going be fun and do what only camp theater can do which is turn on a dime and become terribly serious and surprise you by catching you off guard."
Hell in a Handbag Productions' Midwest premiere of Dan Savage's MIRACLE! plays at Mary's Attic, 5400 N. Clark St., May 14-July 10. Previews run through May 16 with an official press opening at 7 p.m. May 17. The regular run performances are at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, and 3:30 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $17-$35 with VIP reserved seats available. For tickets, call 800-838-3006 or visit www.handbagproductions.org .