Review | A new play shows drug addiction is tough to dramatize in novel ways



Unsympathetic does not begin to describe Emma, the relapsing, cross-addicted antiheroine of Duncan Macmillan’s “People, Places & Things.” Oblivious to what she puts loved ones through, toxic to her co-workers, mendaciously abusive to her therapy team, Emma is the offensive sum of her dysfunctional parts.

A musical, in other words, this is not. And without a riveting turn in that central role, Studio Theatre’s “People, Places & Things” would be a truly agonizing sit. But director David Muse has found in Kristen Bush a performer with a commanding grasp of the formidable task at hand, which is to conjure Emma as her own worst enemy in the process of recovery, yet remain compelling enough that an audience doesn’t feel cast out into a wilderness of indifference.

Bush fulfills the essential mission and then some, enlisting us convincingly as witnesses to the train wreck of her character’s life, and at the same time leaning into an audience’s dogged belief in redemption. “People, Places & Things” walks us far out onto a limb with Emma, testing our faith in both a resistant patient and the efficacy of 12-step treatment programs.

If anything keeps one involved in this rather familiar dramatic setup, it’s the almost clinical unraveling of Emma’s pathology, the sense that we’re in it with Emma as she bamboozles the counselors in a British rehab center and undermines the other addicts. She’s one cagey junkie. Macmillan — who in 2011 premiered another of his works, “Lungs,” at Studio — takes us deep into territory that has been amply covered before, in feature films, TV series, daytime self-help shows and in-depth newspaper articles.

Muse’s production, staged fashion-runway-style in the Victor Shargai Theatre between opposing banks of seats, offers other exceptional performances, particularly from Jahi Kearse as an addict with a more grounded perspective on the value of treatment, and Jeanne Paulsen as the doctor who gently encourages Emma’s better impulses. You won’t come away from “People, Places & Things” — a phrase here denoting the myriad potential threats to steady sobriety — with much in the way of fresh edification. What you do get is a scrupulously clear-eyed account of one person’s seduction by mind-altering narcotics, and the ugly fight to unfasten their grip.

If that and the unsparing portrait of Emma sound engrossing to you, then you’re a potentially satisfied customer for the 2½-hour drama. I’m hedging because the subject so lacks in novelty and only budges grudgingly from the predictable. When we meet her, Emma is an actress in an Ibsen drama, blacking out mid-scene and soon landing voluntarily in a clinic; much of the play revolves not only around Emma’s ambivalence about a cure, but also the skills at deception that she has honed onstage.

“People, Places & Things” occurs chiefly in the clinic’s therapy rooms, where actors portraying the other addicts and alcoholics reveal their histories and role-play with one another. The point is facing the truth, and truth is Emma’s kryptonite; she wears dishonesty as casually as a hospital gown. Even as Emma’s defenses are gradually torn down, though, Macmillan, to his credit, offers Emma no great epiphany. Or ready answers. There are suggestions of a childhood in an emotionally frigid home, but many people survive a deficit of caring parents without snorting chemicals or guzzling bottles of vodka.

The question of who loses control, and why, remains unsettled. The concrete matter of the play is the irreparable harm Emma does to anyone who trusts her. Perhaps the story’s most powerful scene occurs at the end, when Emma’s parents — stirringly played by David Manis and Paulsen — get a chance to speak their minds to her directly. It’s not at all what she expects to hear, and by this point, the audience, as her unwitting accomplices, is a bit surprised by how it turns out, too. This is where “People, Places & Things” departs most potently from the addiction-story formula. The process does not always pave the road to forgiveness.

Debra Booth’s set pieces suggest the institutional blandness of an environment with few social distractions, but something might be done about the banging around one hears, offstage left and right, as actors deal with the beds and other equipment they wheel on and off. (A delay occurred after one of the props bumped into a door and caused some sort of malfunction.) Lindsay Jones’s music and Andrew Cissna’s lighting add commendably to conveying the harshness of the journey Emma has cut out for herself.

Bush’s uncompromising performance makes a virtue of Emma’s nihilistic abandonment of responsibility, her pushing others past the limits of their forbearance. You learn that, even if recovery is a milestone achievement, not everything in one’s life can be recovered.

People, Places & Things, by Duncan Macmillan. Directed by David Muse. Set, Debra Booth; costumes, Helen Q Huang; lighting, Andrew Cissna; sound and original music, Lindsay Jones; projections, Alex Basco Koch. With Nathan Whitmer, Lise Bruneau, Tessa Klein, Derek Garza, Lynnette R. Freeman, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh. About 2½ hours. Through Dec. 11 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW.

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