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The Best Medicine

After years of identity crisis and drug addiction, actor John McGivern has finally found his voices.



John McGivern has two voices, one high and whiny and self-consciously fey, the other lower, more grounded and sensible.

McGivern uses both voices in his solo shows. The serious voice sets up the story. "I come from this long line of bachelors," he says. "My Aunt Agnes who never married, never dated, who lived with her dear friend of 40 years whose name was Hilda, who was the first person I knew growing up to have a Harley-Davidson."

Then the higher, more mischievous voice comes out. "They were called bachelorettes. I don't think so." It's the voice that punctures pretension.

For the past four years, McGivern has been traveling around the country performing his funny, painfully autobiographical one-man shows--Midwest Side Story, More Midwest Side Stories, and his latest, John McGivern Live. All of them follow the same strategy, telling stories that cut through the rationalizations inherited from his family or imposed by himself, revealing the truth cowering behind their defenses.

One of the hardest truths they had to face was that McGivern is gay. "When people would ask, my mother used to say, 'John is a bachelor.' And that was it. Now she says, 'He's a professional homosexual.'"

McGivern, who is 42 and has been out for nearly 15 years, grew up as the middle child in a typical working-class Irish-Catholic family in Milwaukee. "My father was a bricklayer. He was kind of macho. My mother was a mother. She was kind of macho as well."

In grade school McGivern became convinced he had a religious calling. "My father's dream for all of us was to go into the service. So I went into the service of the Lord." He entered a Franciscan seminary, where he studied for the priesthood. Then in his junior year of high school, he was caught with another boy in the periodical binding room of the library. McGivern was expelled for "homosexual acts."

"They wrote my parents, they put me through months of psychotherapy, and they still threw me out," he says.

After four years of soul searching, McGivern returned to the seminary, in part to prove to himself and the world that he wasn't gay, that he could be celibate and "wear the robe as a pure man." He laughs. "I got over that one."

McGivern became disenchanted with the church, though his sexual orientation had less to do with it than his political views and rebellious spirit. "I was always questioning the laws," he says. The breaking point came when he was assigned to help organize a right-to-life rally in the Detroit area. "It was like, you know what? I'm not. I can't. I kicked up my heels and left the church."

He went to Tampa to live with his older brother while he tried to figure out what to do next. He took a few acting classes at the University of South Florida and started auditioning for roles, eventually landing a position as an intern at an Atlanta theater that specialized in musicals about social problems.

"I played Ricky, the wife-abusing auto mechanic, in a musical called That Ain't Country. I would stand onstage with the woman who played my wife, my hands around her neck, while we both sang."

For the next few years, McGivern appeared in shows up and down the east coast until he accumulated enough experience to join Actor's Equity. Yet the union requires that its members be paid a minimum wage, so, McGivern says, once he joined Equity he found he couldn't get hired anymore. In 1988 he decided to move to Chicago because he'd heard there was more union theater here.

Shear Madness was the third show he auditioned for and the first part he landed in Chicago. And until he started creating his one-man shows, it was the only play he appeared in for nearly ten years. By the time McGivern joined the cast, Shear Madness was a lower-middle-brow fixture on the theater scene, well on its way to becoming the longest-running nonmusical in American history. McGivern bounced around in the show, playing a cop for a while before landing the role of the sassy hairdresser, a role he made his own.

Earning Equity wages 52 weeks a year in a play that looked like it would run into the next millennium, McGivern prospered. But offstage, he was losing control.

"I was always a drinker. I come from a family of drinkers. And when I left the seminary, there was pot I had never tried. There were quaaludes I had never tried. There were mushrooms and ecstasy, cocaine and acid, and I tried it all. Without any thought to what I was doing."

By the end of 1989, McGivern had a $600-a-week cocaine habit. He went from snorting it to smoking it to experimenting with shooting it up. "And I would never have gotten help, I would not have admitted I had a problem, if my family didn't step in."

In 1990, just after the holidays, two of McGivern's brothers stopped by his apartment to take him to lunch. "It wasn't until we were on the highway that I said, 'Hey, where are you taking me?'" They were taking him to Milwaukee, where his family had gathered to confront McGivern about his drug and alcohol problem. They all read letters relating how important McGivern was to them. Then, in a scene he vividly recalls in Midwest Side Story, a facilitator stepped in and told McGivern that if he didn't go into rehab "I shouldn't contact anyone in this room ever again."

McGivern checked into the hospital, and seven months later he rejoined the cast of Shear Madness. "And suddenly I was such a better actor." He laughs, and then adds in his higher, more outrageous voice, "Because I wasn't fucked up!"

Four years ago, director Matt Callahan persuaded McGivern to collect his stories as a one-man show for Bailiwick Repertory's Pride Performance Series. The show was so well received that McGivern revived it for a short run at the Organic Greenhouse. Then, taking a leave of absence from Shear Madness, he began performing it around the country.

Since then McGivern's solo career has taken off. Selections from his shows have appeared on the Comedy Central cable network and he's been a guest on the talk show Politically Incorrect. He's temporarily back in town to appear in Shear Madness.

"When I did Politically Incorrect everyone saw it. People in my family, aunts, uncles. Neighbors would call my mother and say, 'Boy, I saw your son on Comedy Central. I didn't know he was,'" McGivern pauses, "'a comic.'"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eugene Zakusilo.

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