Kelsy Anne Schoenhaar
Walk with a Vampire, produced by Encore Studio for the Performing Arts, is not your average Halloween season horror show. It’s actually much more frightening than that. Based on the experiences of former Encore member Jennifer Denson, it is the story of a young woman with a cognitive disability and her abusive relationship with a paranoid schizophrenic man who believed he was a vampire.
As the play begins, Denson’s alter-ego Sarah (played with understated earnestness by Jennifer Scott) sneaks into her best friend’s apartment to get away from her crazed boyfriend and the cops who are chasing them after a meat robbery gone awry. Covered with the beef blood that the would-be vampire likes to drink, Sarah ditches her coat while her friend Alex (a determined Dawn Cieszynski) sleeps through several snooze alarms. When she wakes up, Alex is unable to explain to her social worker or the police how she came to possess the incriminating trench coat.
As the plot unfolds, the audience gets a glimpse into Sarah and Dawn’s world. Neither likes their jobs at a workshop for the developmentally disabled, illustrated colorfully by a dozen cast members doing repetitive, menial tasks in a somewhat chaotic atmosphere. Christie Stadele gets consistent laughs as Ellen, a disgruntled worker who constantly comments “It’s like the army around here.”
And neither woman is fazed by spending a night in jail in the “retard” room, or by being taken advantage of — by men, by the system and even by friends.
In the video interview segments interspersed between scenes, Denson talks matter-of-factly about being kicked out of her apartment, sleeping on the street, stealing food from grocery stores and being picked up by the cops. She also describes the horrific abuse she sustained at the hands of her boyfriend, which included being punched, kicked, stabbed, tied to her bed for days at a time and having satanic symbols carved into her back with a knife. Denson also explains how vulnerable women with disabilities are to mistreatment, assault and rape.
The production not only raises awareness of violence against particularly vulnerable women, it also raises questions about labels. Is it okay for disabled people to call each other “retard”? Or does it simply underscore the ridiculous, antiquated, and demeaning term for people with a wide range of challenges and abilities? In a touching scene at the end of the play, both Sarah and Dawn reject the term and allow their self-esteem to grow.
Finally, the play raises visibility for people who are often swept to the side in society and the theater world. After seeing many productions that feature characters with physical and mental challenges played by non-disabled actors, it's refreshing to watch actors of many skill levels play parts that were literally written for them.
Walk with a Vampire isn’t designed to make you jump with fright. It’s designed to make you sit up and pay attention, without being overly didactic. And it’s comforting that in this case, the play — and the story it’s based on — both have happy endings.