by Carol Rocamora
Just when you think “you’ve seen it all” on the topic of drug addiction and recovery, along comes a play that blows the top of your head off.
That’s what People, Places & Things is doing to audiences at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn this month. Duncan Macmillan’s lacerating new drama about a young actress’s ordeal features some of the most inventive direction I’ve seen in years, a committed company, and a sensational central performance by Denise Gough, a rising star of the British stage.
We first meet Emma as “Nina” in Act IV of Chekhov’s Seagull. (It’s only one of the many names and identities she’ll assume). She’s drunk. Next, she’s checking into a recovery facility. She’s high. Emma is every rehab director’s nightmare. She’s uncooperative and uncommunicative. She’s recalcitrant and disruptive—and by the end of Act I, she checks out, triumphant in her rebellion.
But at the top of Act II, she’s back in—and takes the journey through recovery, back into the world and a final confrontation with her family of origin.
Jeremy Herrin, the production’s brilliant and resourceful director, insists on taking us along this traumatic journey along with his protagonist. Thus, every twist and turn to the story is a shock to our system, as well as Emma’s. Violent rock music punctuates each scene change. A few minutes into Act I, a sudden light cue reveals that there’s actually another live audience facing us! (We had no idea that the theater was configurated in corridor seating.) When Emma goes through withdrawal, a deafening music cue ushers in no less than six Emmas, crawling out of her bed, breaking through the wall, writhing and stumbling across the stage. It’s an extraordinary sight—one that dramatizes the delirious withdrawal process like nothing I’ve ever seen. As one of the members of the versatile ensembles says, it’s “a scream in search of a mouth.”
There are many touching moments—especially between Emma and Mark, another patient (Nathaniel Martello-White) who reminds Emma of her own brother Mark who died recently and under tragic circumstance. There’s a compassionate therapist who shepherds Emma through the arduous twelve steps (played by Barbara Marten, doubling as a doctor and Emma’s mother). The supporting company members, playing multiple roles (hospital staff, patients, family members, and numerous “Emmas”), are superb.
At the center of this compelling story is the remarkable Denise Gough, whose breakthrough performance is still being talked about in London where the play originated last season. Gough commits to Emma’s journey as if her own life depended on it, and her physical and emotional upheaval is painfully, palpably real.
In the penultimate scene following Emma’s release from rehab, the play suddenly turns the tables on us. The ingenious set designer (Bunny Christie) lowers a bedroom set down from the ceiling, to envelope Emma. She’s back home, preparing for the final confrontation with her mother and father—a scene she’s rehearsed many times in therapy sessions. It does not go as rehearsed—and therein lies Emma’s ultimate crucible. Without revealing its contents, the play opens up a whole new perspective on Emma’s devastating addiction and the reasons behind her resistance.
People, Places & Things offers a number of compelling insights into the desperate struggles of the addict. First, there’s the issue of identity.
“If I’m not a character, I don’t even know I’m there,” says Emma, whose name changes numerous times throughout the play, as does her identity. “Truth is difficult when your job is lying for a living,” replies Mark, her only friend. Second, there’s the crucial interaction with family members, and its place in the journey toward recovery. Third, there’s the question of faith in the process—one that the play raises, but doesn’t resolve.
Finally, there’s the over-arching question: “What is recovery?” Emma attempts an answer at the play’s end—and it’s worth it to take the journey with her, just to hear it.
People, Places & Things. Through December 3 at St. Ann’s Warehouse (45 Water Street, DUMBO, Brooklyn). www.stannswarehouse.org
Photos: Teddy Wolff