By Elyse Orecchio
“This shit is brutal, but it’s also an acting trap,” playwright Chad Beckim writes as a script note in his new work, Nothing Gold Can Stay, presented by Partial Comfort Productions. “Don’t get mired in the brutality; find the humor and light. I think that’s probably the only way most of these folks survive.” With Beckim’s sharp dialogue and Shelley Butler’s non-indulgent direction, this intelligent and gut-wrenching production is a master class in finding the humor and light in the brutality of a family shattered by drug addiction.
There is an opioid crisis in Maine that’s claimed over 2,000 lives in the last ten years, illuminated here in the story of Clay and Jess, a young couple about to be separated by college—he’s going, and she’s not. He’s getting out of his withered home (featuring an uncomfortable-looking couch in Jason Simms’s set) in working-class Northern Maine, while she is resigned to stay in town and work all day boning chickens.
The play’s namesake is a short Robert Frost poem that suggests beauty in its prime is fleeting, as evidenced in the romance between Clay and Jess, who have known each other since seventh grade and have probably dated for about as long. The couple’s long-term familiarity is reflected in their dialogue, laden with affection and zings.
The opening banter between the couple quickly gives way to Jess’s (Talene Monahon, hahbahing the company’s thickest New England accent) resentment that she should be the one going to college, but her mom “fucked up everything they worked for.” Clay (an understated Micheál Richardson, making his New York stage debut) implores her to join him, but she chooses instead to live with Clay’s mother. “Because it’s not mine,” is all she can offer as her reason.
Clay’s mom, Susan Taylor (stunningly articulated by Mary Bacon), at first appears as your typical sweet sitcom mom, chatting with the birds in her dowdy sweater and loafers (costume design by Whitney Locher) and embarrassed by foul language in a tee-hee sort of way. Susan gradually sheds her sunny armor to reveal that she has survived a deadbeat husband and dead-end town and will also survive anything else that comes her way. And a whole lot comes.
While Clay is in college, Jess descends into an oxy addiction. The story progresses in brief vignettes over the course of 18 months, where the passage of time is indicated through shifts in Karen Spahn’s lighting. This structure effectively keeps the pace moving and portrays the in-and-out shuffle of addiction. Beat by beat, scene by scene, Jess appears in different phases of her struggle: newly clean and apologetic, then using and begging. Rinse and repeat.
Rounding out the ensemble are two standout characters: Clay’s sister Tanya (Adrienne Rose Bengtsson, looking and sounding like she was discovered in a Maine warehouse, she’s that good) and Jess’s brother Jamie (Peter Mark Kendall, excellently subdued). Each is in their mid-20s; having split from their no-good exes, they’re already resigned to a stagnant life as the single parent of a young daughter. Tanya seeks comfort in her “totally legal” THC gummies, and Jamie, the only good dad around, saves all his aggression for his dog. We get the feeling that he finds it preferable to pouncing on his addict sister, his pervert stepdad, or his cancer-ridden mother.
Jamie can only afford to shell out thousands for his sister’s rehab once. After her first relapse, he washes his hands as caretaker, leaving Susan to assume primary responsibility for her son’s girlfriend, who has been in her life since childhood. We thus get a real sense of this working-class community, where other parents pick up the slack for the absentees.
Nothing I’ve described sounds very funny, does it? But Beckim makes good on his endeavor to find the light in the brutality. The audience’s sniffles from laughter are at times indistinguishable from those of sorrow when (mild spoiler alert) the worst happens.
As Susan trudges on, family Uno nights persevere. When ambition wilts like the flower in Frost’s poem, opportunity dies, and all that was gold crumbles into darkness around her, she will sit at that damn coffee table and play a round of cards with her family. By the end, it is not the family she expected, but is a family that will have to do.
Photos: Spencer Moses
A.R.T./New York Theatres
502 West 53rd St., NYC
Through October 26