Before 1990, when the Americans with Disabilities Act became law, there were places euphemistically called "sheltered workshops"—a kind of establishment where, according to the opening notes of David E. Freeman's bracingly discomforting 1972 play Creeps, "disabled people can go and work at their own pace without the pressure of the competitive outside world. Its aim is not to provide a living wage for the C.P. [in this case, individual with cerebral palsy], but rather to occupy his idle hours."
That is Freeman's extremely polite way of describing the terribleness of sheltered workshops, in what are probably the politest two sentences to be found in the pages of Creeps. It's a 70-minute burst of frustration and gallows humor in the filthy bathroom of a sheltered workshop where five "spastics"—as they derisively call themselves—have shut themselves away to bitch for an hour while their female supervisor pounds angrily on the door and a "C.P." in a nearby women's room periodically howls, "I need a priest!"
The men have plenty to bitch about: bullying supervisors, parents who are ashamed to have them at the dinner table, condescending and idiotic "benefactors" from the Kiwanis and Rotary clubs, an entire world full of people who think that just because the men have trouble with their motor functions they're either drunk or "retarded," and their dumb jobs (folding boxes, sanding blocks) that pay prison wages. As Pete (Matt Gaffney), who spends the first few minutes of the play in a stall, trying to take a crap despite the interruptions, sardonically puts it: "I'm on strike. They're only paying me seventy-five cents a week. I'm worth eighty." Like the characters in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, they're constantly being handed plates of shit and expected to act like it's manna from heaven.
But Freeman—who had cerebral palsy himself—doesn't allow us the easy self-satisfaction of pitying these guys. They batter each other just as viciously as the world batters them. One character in a wheelchair, named Sam (Spencer Graham), who is thought to have raped the woman calling for a priest in the next room, resorts to some racial epithets that inspired gasps in the opening-night audience. And, as he says to Pete at one point: "Guys like you really piss me off. You got two good legs and one good hand. So the other one's a little deformed, big fuckin' deal!" But their camaraderie survives the insults: Later, Sam will need Pete to hold a bottle so he can pee into it.
Director Gregg Gilmore has staged the play in a subterranean nook not much bigger than a bathroom, and it looks like a bathroom, with around 20 chairs just a few feet from the actors, grimy toilets, and cigarette butts stuck to the floor. Creeps is raw, both as a play and as a performance—several of the actors, Gilmore says, had never been onstage before—but it's hard to imagine it being done quite as effectively anywhere else.