‘People, Places & Things’ at St. Ann’s Warehouse. (Photo: Teddy Wolff)
By Samuel L. Leiter
People, Places & Things, by British playwright Duncan Macmillan (1984), combines realism with hallucinogenic theatricality to present what is essentially a clinical enactment of a drug and alcohol addict’s experiences in getting the monkey off her back. Although leavened by dark humor and eye-popping visuals, this play—so pertinent during our present opioid crisis—can be heavy going. It is, though, definitely worth a trip to Dumbo, Brooklyn to see it.
Emma (Denise Gough), real name Sarah (which I’ll call her), is a struggling, young actress who, in the first scene, is so spaced-out she breaks down while playing Nina in The Seagull. Somehow, she manages to drive herself to a rehab facility, hoping to be admitted so she can last out the minimum stay of 28 days required to earn a certificate demonstrating her ability to return to work. Not going to happen. She’s too strung out and will need months before she’ll be considered ready to leave, thus only further enraging her.
The two hour and twenty-minute play reveals Sarah as a very difficult, self-centered, rage-filled, disruptive force, unwilling to play by the facility’s closely enforced rules, follow its 12-step program and to admit the depth of her addiction. A major cross she bears is the guilt she feels regarding her beloved brother’s recent death from an overdose.
You’re entitled to wonder how, given the difficulties of an acting career, someone so troubled is able to get any kind of work, much less be cast as Nina. The device, allowing Nina’s dilemma to mirror Sarah’s, is a bit too obvious although it provides a rationale for Sarah’s identity issues represented by her difficulty connecting with other people, her belief that she exists only when playing roles, and her claim that the only things that make her feel alive are drugs and alcohol. It also gives her the opportunity to spit out a stingingly authentic speech outlining the hardships of the actor’s life.
As expected, we meet Sarah’s fellow patients, the facility’s aides, and the clearly qualified therapist and doctor, the latter two played by the excellent Barbara Marten; Sarah mentions to both that they remind her of her Mum, whom Marten, naturally, also covers when we eventually meet her.
Much of the action takes place during Group sessions where the patients sit in a circle and “practice,” i.e., do improvisatory exercises where they imagine revelatory confrontations with significant people in their lives. One, named Mark (Nathaniel Martello-White), like her brother, befriends this “human hand grenade,” as he calls her, but only after he’s initially upset on realizing that Sarah’s self-introduction is the plot of Hedda Gabler (incomprehensibly, he later fails to recognize an obvious Seagull reference).
Sarah, whose inability to complete things she’s started is symbolized by her having attended four universities without graduating, is an intellectual who reads Foucault, Derrida, and the like. Having seen Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train a night earlier, I was struck by the similarity of her discussions and those in Stephen Adly Giurgis’s play regarding issues of faith, spiritual awakening, and the difficulty of being human.
As Sarah, Irish actress Denise Gough, who won the Olivier Award for her portrayal in the original National Theatre production (she’ll be playing Harper in the upcoming revival of Angels in America), gives a physically and emotionally grueling performance that bravely avoids sentimentalizing the character; in fact, by the end of the long first act, you may find your patience for her unrelenting hissy fits and rationalizations for her nihilism wearing thin.
Act Two repays your fortitude, however, especially the aching scene when Sarah goes home and seeks to reconcile with the parents (Kevin McGonagle, quite fine, and Marten, heart-wrenching) to whom she’s brought so much grief. She’s been warned to avoid “people, places, and things” that might trigger unfortunate results but she dares to look the devil in the eye. What happens is unforgettably disquieting, especially in contrast with a scene we’ve viewed just minutes before in which the hopeful Sarah practices the reunion, the same actors playing both the “practice” parents and the actual ones.
Sarah’s drug-fueled episodes allow director Jeremy Herrin and movement specialist Polly Bennett to concoct dazzling theatrical moments, heightened by the various designers’ contributions. There’s a surprising coup de théâtre early in the play when the cavernous St. Ann’s auditorium, in which you at first think you’re watching a proscenium production, is suddenly discovered to have been divided by set designer Bunny Christie in two, with a matching set of bleachers across the stage.
The set proper is a large, off-white, pod-like environment, using units that slide in from the tiled walls, rise from below, or fly in from above. Unusual music (Matthew Herbert) and sound (Tom Gibbons) combine with exceptional lighting effects (James Farncombe) and projections (Andrzej Goulding) to evoke Sarah’s agony as five actresses dressed and wigged just like her writhe, vomit, and scatter like fragments of a drug-laced nightmare.
Such images will not, however, easily scatter from the brains of theatergoers visiting People, Places & Things.
People, Places & Things
St. Ann’s Warehouse
45 Water St. Brooklyn, NY
Extended through December 3
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. A voting member of the Drama Desk, he has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).