“Drugs and alcohol have never let me down. They have always loved me,” Emma (Denise Gough) tells the doctor at the rehab clinic, not quite halfway through Duncan Macmillan’s play. Her comments are actually a sign of progress.
If an alcoholic’s 12-step journey toward recovery is a familiar subject, “People, Places & Things” offers enough special and surprising, well, people, places and things to justify a visit to St. Ann’s Warehouse, where it’s scheduled to run through December 3.
Gough is reprising the role that won her great acclaim and an Olivier Award in London, of an actress who blacks out during a performance of Chekhov’s The Seagull, and is ordered to get clean if she ever wants to act again. It’s a brave, intense and vulnerable performance, challenging physically and emotionally. But it’s also a nuanced one — befitting a complex woman who is funny, observant, cunning, defiant, desperate; in denial – that feels like a compendium of Emmas, shifting over time. Even when she slurs her words or weaves unsteadily, it’s in subtle gradations, indicating improvement or relapse. Gough is set to make her Broadway debut in February as Harper, another addictive character, in the revival of Angels in America – yet another reason to be looking forward to that show.
Gough’s is not the only extraordinary performance in “People, Places and Things.” Barbara Marten is completely persuasive in three roles — the rehab center’s doctor and its therapist, both of whom look like Emma’s mother – and she also eventually portrays Emma’s mother, a brief but revealing role. Kevin McMonagle is a wonder as a crazy fellow patient who goes through some fascinating ups and downs – and he also portrays Emma’s father.
All ten cast members do a spot-on job, and director Jeremy Herrin puts them and the design team to great use, with some inventive moments of stagecraft that are downright thrilling. Some of these even enable us to see what’s going on inside Emma’s head. I won’t reveal the details, because part of what makes the theatricality so exciting is how surprising it is.
McMillan, who is best-known in New York for “Every Brilliant Thing” Off-Broadway and his adaptation of “1984” on Broadway, has created a vivid character in Emma, and some sharp dialogue. He also uses a clever device to bring quick, rich glimpses into the other characters at the clinic, by having each one by one engage in role play during Group Therapy session, confronting and confessing to people from their past whom they hurt. This is one of the ways that the play provides both deep and broad illumination to the problem of addiction. The title comes from an update to the first of the 12 Steps. As the doctor explains:
“Instead of declaring ourselves powerless over alcohol or 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.”
Some will see “People, Places & Things,” with a running time of about two and a half hours, as overlong and repetitive. But I found it worth the wait for the penultimate scene, in which the meaning of the title becomes startlingly clear. Earlier Emma had rehearsed during role play what she’d say to her parents, and imagined how they will react. Now she enters her childhood bedroom (in a theatrically clever way) and has the talk for real. How they react is surprising and insightful in the extreme. It was also one of the most moving scenes I’ve experienced this season.