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People, Places & Things

Truth is difficult when you lie for a living.— Emma, actress, addict, and protagonist of Duncan Macmillan's People, Places & Things Doctor
denise gough
Denise Gough (Photo Teddy Wolff)
Set in a London rehabilitation facility where therapeutic practice is based on the 12-step tradition, People, Places & Things follows Emma (Denise Gough), an actress in her thirties, from an addict's "rock bottom" experience through treatment and "graduation" from rehab. Duncan Macmillan has written a strenuous central role and, as advance word from London indicated, he has found in Gough a performer with the technique, insight, and stamina to realize credibly the contradictions in the part.

"We recover as a group," observes Mark (Nathaniel Martello-White). Though he's one of Emma's peers in group therapy, Mark is further along in treatment and much more highly self-motivated. He fears that Emma's initial "refusal to engage with the process is compromising everyone's recovery." Complaining to the powers that be, Mark explains: "We need this to be a safe place to share."

What Mark sees is that Emma is a consummate pretender. He even pegs her as a professional actress after recognizing a bogus reminiscence she has shared with the group as the plot of a great 19th century play. "We're addicts," Mark tells Emma, "because we have a toxic combination of low self-esteem and grandiosity." Mark's well-intended badgering elicits Emma's first honest statement in rehab: "Truth is difficult when you lie for a living."

Since drug treatment and recovery advance at a gradual, undramatic pace, Macmillan gins up his narrative with a protagonist who's obstreperous, clashing with everyone she meets. Emma is full of justifications for her bad behavior; and she's armed with glib counterarguments to the facility's therapeutic methods. "Self-medicating," Emma says, "is the only way to survive in a world that is broken." In Emma's view, she and her fellow group members aren't "defective" — "it's the world that's [messed up]."

Macmillan's script consists of brief scenes that end abruptly, with the action popping forward over the chronology of Emma's recovery with the momentum of a stone skimmed across a pond. Jeremy Herrin enhances the narrative thrust with direction that isn't merely rapid-fire but relentless. And the designers collaborating with Macmillan and Herrin — Bunny Christie (set), James Farncombe (lights), Tom Gibbons (sound), Andrzej Goulding (video/projection), and Christina Cunningham (costumes) — contribute visual and aural surprises that make this potboiler seem far more than the latter day version of The Snake Pit it is.

As Emma reaches the most difficult point in her initial detoxification (as well as in the detox that follows relapse), the playwright brings on multiple Emmas — actresses who look, dress, and move like Gough — to dramatize how withdrawal fractures her consciousness and shreds her perceptions. When Emma's confused, the lighting, sound, and projections go haywire; and when she blacks out, the theater goes dark.

To emphasize the misperceptions of Emma's drug-addled brain and the impact of Freudian projection, Macmillan has a single actress play the three most important people in Emma's universe: her rehab physician, the therapist in charge of her group, and her mother. In the current production, this assignment falls to the superb Barbara Marten, who has a gift for lickety-split transformation. How masterful Marten's performance is become fully evident only in the production's final moments.

The play follows Emma out of rehab, back to the wider world where she can't avoid encountering people, places, and things that remind her of "using" and which have been "triggers" in the past. As Emma struggles to apologize to her uncompassionate parents (Kevin McMonagle, as well as Marten) for the pain she has caused, Marten conveys, with a master actor's subtlety, a clear notion of why this family is "broken" and how Emma's life went off the rails.

On this side of the Atlantic, where People, Places & Things is playing a limited engagement at St. Ann's Warehouse in the DUMBO section of Brooklyn, this joint production of the National Theatre and the innovative U.K. company Headlong is likely to be noticed primarily as Gough's New York debut. Irish-born and a current toast of London theater, Gough will be returning to New York later this season for a higher profile turn in the National Theatre's revival of Angels in America. But Macmillan's Grand Guignol voyage through the demolished mind of an addict is far more than a vehicle for Gough's virtuosic performance.

At this juncture in the national discussion of illicit drugs, when the president of the United States has just directed the Department of Health and Human Services to characterize opioid misuse as a public health emergency, Macmillan's drama is a timely depiction of the physical, psychological, and social impact of addiction. It's hard to imagine the sundry crafts of theater being brought together more expertly to dramatize the peril and pain of life at the mercy of drugs.

To read Curtainup's review of the London production go here

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People, Places & Things by Duncan Macmillan
Directed by Jeremy Herrin.
Cast: Denise Gough (Emma), Jacob James Beswick (T/Ensemble), Alistair Cope (Foster), Jacqui Dubois (Jodi/Ensemble), Charlotte Gascoyne (Charlotte/Ensemble), Kevin McMonagle (Paul/Dad), Nathaniel Martello-White (Mark), Barbara Marten (Doctor/Therapist/Mum), Himesh Patel (Shaun/Ensemble) and Laura Woodward (Laura/Ensemble).set is designed by Bunny Christie
Set designer: Bunny Christie
Costume designer: Christina Cunningham
Lighting designer: James Farncombe
Music: Matthew Herbert
Sound designer: Tom Gibbons
Video & projection designer: Andrzej Goulding
Movement: Polly Bennett
Stage Manager: Cal Hawes
Running Time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, 1 intermission
St. Ann's Warehouse 45 Water Street, Brooklyn
From 10/19/17; opening 10/15 closing 11/19/17.
Reviewed by Charles Wright at 10/24/17 press performance

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