With its white curved proscenium and matching transparent curtain, behind which you get hints of a sterile white production design, you might get the feeling St. Ann’s Warehouse is currently home to a stage version of Star Wars, or some other piece of science fiction. That’s not what you get when the curtain drops, but People, Places & Things will be, for most members of the audience, luckily, a look at something just as otherworldly.
The show opens with a scene from a production of Chekhov’s The Seagull, a play within our play starring Emma (Denise Gough) as Nina. Both Emma the woman and Nina the character are actresses. In this particular production, both are also intoxicated. We learn Emma has consumed a remarkably diverse cocktail of narcotics before stepping upon the stage. The play within comes to a dramatic halt when Emma tears down the backdrop and her colleagues flood the stage to remove her from it. The next time we see her she is attempting to check herself into a rehab facility, for just enough time, she expects, to earn her “certificate” as proof she poses no harm to the outside world. However, it’s the harm she has caused herself that we’ll spend time considering over the next two hours.
People, Places & Things, written by Duncan MacMillan, takes place almost entirely within that rehab facility. The characters are mostly addicts, including the staff, each at a different place on the recovery spectrum. It includes enough 12-step language and slogans to prove the text’s authenticity to anyone familiar with “the program.” Like the 12-step journey itself, the story is more about what Emma and her peers put out into the world, not necessarily what the world hands back to them in return. An addict can make amends to the loved ones they have harmed as a result of their disease, but there is no promise that apologies will be accepted, bridges mended. Admitting what you have control over and when you are powerless to control is central to recovery, and to this show’s soul.
MacMillan has not written a stereotypical patient/therapist story. There are scenes where patients sit in a circle with a counselor to share, to listen, to role play. But this isn’t the addict’s version of Good Will Hunting. It’s not a feel good story, but a feel something, damn it, story. What do these characters deserve? Unlimited chances to achieve a happy ending? What does that even mean? What do we truly know about Emma and her peers, even as the show concludes? What do we need to know to make them worthy of our empathy? It is a play free of judgment even though it is filled with characters we might otherwise find easy to judge.
The original production was a critically-acclaimed, sold-out success at the National Theatre and in London’s West End, and is now touring. Denise Gough won an Olivier Award for her work. The lead role is demanding for many reasons. I think Gough left the stage for only seconds during the entire production. Hers is a physical performance that throws her around the stage as if she’s being pulled and pushed from the inside out. The breadth of emotion covered by the text includes shame, anger, obstinance, heartbreak, and humility. The role requires her to take us along to the depths of rock bottom, and reveal the horrors of withdrawal. Through cries of anger and anguish, and contortions of body and face, she delivers on these demands with mastery. Gough is supported by a strong cast. Her wardrobe is as drab as the surroundings. Still, she is a technicolor tasmanian devil at the center of this stark white world.
The production itself is invigorating. When we are taken outside of the rehab or deeper into Emma’s mind, it is because of bold lighting and sound design. The ways in which the production chooses to reveal Emma’s hallucinations to us is too much of an enjoyable surprise to reveal in detail here. It is creepy, and scary, and sad. Her struggle is vividly real to her even if no one else can see it. It is one of a handful of ways the set continues to reveal new and surprising details to us throughout the show. In retrospect, I don’t think any character ever strikes another one, and yet I remember the show feeling violent. This is a credit, I believe, to the direction, performance and design of the show. It unsettled me without giving me a good excuse to look away. None of these compliments should be a surprise. Set Designer Bunny Christie also received well-deserved praise for her work on the Broadway production of The Curious Incident of the Dog In the Night-Time.
Comparisons between the life of an actor working hard in hope of a break, and an addict working hard in need of hope do not end with the opening scene. When Emma is recognized as an actress by another patient who has seen her perform, she details for him her experience of embodying a character for an audience on a stage. It sounds exhilarating, and addicting. It’s an opportunity to hide in plain site. Thanks to the two-sided stage at St. Ann’s with audiences facing each other on both the upstage and downstage sides, we are always aware that this is a performance. This experience ties nicely to a central theme, expressed by more than one character. We, all of us in the human experience, have signed on to an unspoken agreement. We will live our lives in the midst of bullshit…our families, our jobs, even our traditions and our laws…and we promise not to remind each other that it’s all make believe. Even when you’re watching an audience watch a play in which an actress portrays an addict and an addict attempts to remain an actress.
People, Places & Things runs to December 3, 2017. More production info can be found here.