Theater Review

American Junkie Adapts a Grunge Heroin Memoir to the Stage

Book-It Repertory Theatre turns Tom Hansen’s 2009 book into a stream of consciousness addiction monologue.

By Stefan Milne February 19, 2019

Ian Bond plays Tom Hansen in American Junkie, as Kurt Cobain plays in the background. 

Tom Hansen released his 2009 memoir, American Junkie, just as a new wave of heroin addiction spurred by the over-prescription of opioids began to ravage the country. The book intertwines two narrative threads. In one Hansen is in a hospital, recovering from years of heroin addiction that’s left him looking, as he put it, “like a concentration camp victim.” He weighed 120 pounds and had been pulling wads of paper towels the size of grapefruits out of gapping sores and shooting black tar right into the bone.

The other narrative line recounts his childhood as an adopted son of Scandinavian immigrants in Edmonds and Lynwood, his time in local pre-grunge punk bands like the Fartz (who played with the Dead Kennedys), his subsequent heroin addiction, and finally his years as a Seattle junk dealer—including the time he sold to Kurt Cobain under the viaduct a few months before Cobain’s death. 

Book-It Repertory Theater’s adaptation, which opened last week, is clearly timely—since we remain in the ravages of another opioid crisis—and a near facsimile. It preserves the book's structure, switching between the hospital and the back story, and largely casts Hansen’s prose as a monologue (spoken by Ian Bond as Hansen). Five other actors swap various roles as different people in Hansen’s life, and scenery changes slightly—a hospital bed appears for the recovery scenes. Cobain even shows up as a bit character, then takes the stage to play. But largely American Junkie feels like a one man show, a stream of consciousness dramatization.

The problems with the play come twofold. First the emphasis lands firmly on the drama in dramatization. Nearly everything in Bond’s performance is pitched in a key of wrenching pain. Much of the clearly harrowing material necessitates this, but even when Hansen (the character) is describing how much the drug has numbed him, how little he cares and feels, his voice comes with a theatrical ache. 

Meanwhile the staging is comparatively anemic. All the wounds—described in constant gristly detail—are not only not shown, but shown to not be there. Bond springs from the hospital bed back into his memories unmarred, and the other characters smear into a sort of sameness, many of them speaking in Hansen’s voice. That might be a compelling demonstration of the drug’s numb solipsistic power, but it never feels fully intentional. 

In 1981, Hansen’s punk band the Refuzors accompanied a live rendition of their song “Splat Goes the Cat” by flinging a cat they’d found dead in the middle of the road into the audience. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer ran an article describing the subsequent outrage. In American Junkie, Book-It stages the moment, in its sustained dramatic key, but here when an actor hurls the cat, it’s a limp stuffed animal and it lands back on the stage—never quite reaching the audience.  

American Junkie
Feb 18–Mar 10, Book-It Repertory Theatre, $20–$50

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