Emma, the heroine of Duncan Macmillan’s caustically funny People, Places & Things (★★★★☆), stumbles into rehab still rolling on an epic binge. Before being whisked off to her room, she sniffs her last toot of speed off the reception desk.
In Kristen Bush’s tremendous performance leading the exhilarating production David Muse has staged inside Studio’s new Victor Shargai Theatre, we can detect the pride Emma takes in being a world-class addict.
“People who aren’t addicted to something are really missing out,” she cracks. Emma jests and evades and resists as a reflex. A working actress, she’s not at all ready to give up the role of glamorous but troubled, drug-addled mess. In fact, she checks in under an assumed name, and offers little to her fellow patients in group other than aloof quips and an able scene partner for exercises in which they each practice making amends to those they’ve hurt or disappointed.
We’ve been here before, inside the therapy lounge where a stubborn, self-destructive protagonist will have to break through, or break down trying. Macmillan finds fresh ground by taking the gloves off, digging deep into Emma’s dysfunction and refusing to throw the character a single lifeline that doesn’t come with cold hard truth attached.
The play, an award-winning hit in London’s West End, keeps us laughing with and at Emma, who, likable though she is, has been a selfish menace to her family and colleagues.
The script’s consistently bright wit comes off as no mean feat in a dead-serious story where the closest ally Emma finds in treatment, Jahi Kearse’s appealingly easygoing Mark, turns out to have been an even worse menace to society. Beholden to substances, people like Emma, Mark, Foster (Nathan Whitmer), T (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh), Charlotte (Lise Bruneau), Jodi (Lynnette R. Freeman), and the others in group pose a danger to themselves and anyone close to them.
Muse directs the hell out of the play, evoking that pulsing sense of danger, present from the first scene of Emma falling apart during a live performance onstage in a period romance. In a nifty use of alley staging that splits the audience in two, with each side facing the other over the stage in the middle, Emma’s onstage fiasco plays out with the added scenic design of an actual live audience in view.
From her mid-performance collapse, Emma lifts off, literally, via swift, flowing transitions to a raging club party, then the sterile, gray halls of the treatment facility. Drunk and stoned out of her mind, she’s relinquished control of her body as well. Muse echoes the transition later with Emma held aloft and carried in a stupor from another club to a potentially deadly detour on the road back to rehab. Debra Booth’s adaptable set design elegantly facilitates the tightly choreographed action, while Lindsay Jones’ impressive soundscapes enliven the action and atmosphere.
The script and imaginative direction render Emma’s fractured mental state and disorientation vividly. Filling the stage with Emma doubles bustling, frazzled, to and fro, brings her clouded psyche into sharper focus, as does Bush’s powerfully vulnerable and exposed performance. She’s matched by Jeanne Paulsen’s starkly honest turn in multiple roles, including Lydia, the therapist who leads group sessions at the facility. Lydia and all the doctors in rehab look to Emma too much like her tough-loving mum.
Emma’s mother eventually shows up, and Paulsen makes her both exactly the plainspoken nitpicker we might have expected, and somehow a complete surprise. The climactic mother-daughter confrontation hits with the blunt force of a Mack truck, and is wisely underplayed by Paulsen, Bush, and David Manis, as Emma’s stern father.
Manis also marks a striking appearance as Paul, a raving patient in rehab who might have only a tenuous grip on reality, but can still see through Emma’s well-constructed falseness. It will take more than twelve steps for her to see herself with such clarity, and, as the play makes brutally clear, even then, she still might never atone for the pain she’s already caused.
People, Place & Things runs through December 11 at The Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Tickets are $65 to $95. Call 202-332-3300, or visit www.StudioTheatre.org.
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