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On Stage, A Clear-Eyed Look at Addiction

Paramedics administer to Emma (Denise Gough), an alcoholic and addict in People, Places & Things.

Watching someone collapse from a drug overdose in front of you is a much more visceral experience than reading about it in the newspaper. And that is what audiences at a New York theater are faced with as soon as the lights come up on People, Places & Things.

It’s a scene from a Chekov play, and the actress playing Nina is obviously drunk or high, or both. She collapses on stage and all hell breaks loose - lights flash, loud music plays, actors dressed as EMS workers strip her of her Victorian costume, gurneys whiz by. It's the start of a journey that takes Emma, the actress - and the audience - on the painful and difficult road towards recovery.

“I know people in recovery,” says playwright Duncan MacMillan. “I know people with addiction issues. I know people, even in the course of researching and working on this play, several of the people who I was thinking of and talking to about it died.”

So he did not want to resort to tired old stereotypes about addicts.

“That they are these tragic people who can only die to serve the narrative. And I was interested in sort of redressing that and trying to find a way to accurately represent and respectfully represent the daily struggle and the daily work of living in recovery.”

12 steps to recovery

At the center of the play is the 12-step program, a widely-used set of guiding principles outlining a course of action for recovery. The first step is admitting that you are powerless over your addiction, and the next two steps acknowledge the existence of a God who will save you.

That is hard for Emma, and it was for Duncan MacMillan, too.

“I just thought well, ‘God, if I had to do this, I would I would not be able to surrender my critical faculties so easily. And if that is what is required to save my life, I think I think I'm not going to make this.’ And the journey I have gone on in writing this play, I have softened a lot about all of that stuff because it is just about realizing that there are things that are beyond your control; that you cannot control.”

A therapist (Barbara Marten, right) tries to reason with Emma (Denise Gough), an alcoholic and addict who has come to rehab in People, Places & Things.
A therapist (Barbara Marten, right) tries to reason with Emma (Denise Gough), an alcoholic and addict who has come to rehab in People, Places & Things.

The play’s title comes from the way the recovery center rewrote the first step. As a therapist in the play explains to Emma, “Instead of declaring ourselves powerless over alcohol and drugs, we admit that we are powerless over people, places and things; people who make us want to relapse, places we associate with using, and things that reactivate old behavior.”

One day at a time

Part of the process the addicts go through at the recovery center, where most of the play takes place, is rehearsing what they will say to people, out in the “real world.” That comes naturally for the character Emma, who is an actress, after all. But once she ventures outside and confronts those people, places and things, she gets knocked for a loop all over again, says Denise Gough, the actress who portrays her. Gough won an Olivier Award for the role, which she originated in the London premiere of the play.

“You do not know at the end of the play if she is going to be all right. And that is really important, because we cannot know. I did not want to be in a play that sugarcoated any of this. There is no point. I have met and know and I have been around too many people who have suffered this disease to go on stage and say there is a happy ending. We do not know that. It is one day at a time.”

And that is a life and death point playwright Duncan MacMillan says he wanted to make.

“One day at a time. And life has to win every single day. And death only has to win once.”