The Qualification of Douglas Evans, a deeply compelling new play for the Amoralists by Derek Ahonen, looks at addiction without embellishment. It skips the pathos we’re used to seeing in drinking stories and instead takes a steady march through a life leaning more and more on the bottle. Ahonen’s tightly knit, episodic drama treats alcoholism as the complicated affliction it is. Family history haunts Douglas (played by Ahonen), a struggling young actor-playwright, but so do emotional misfortunes, physical depravity, and moral crises.
His severe father (Penny Bittone) climbs on and off the wagon throughout his childhood; his mother (Barbara Weetman) is terrified but tenacious. When he moves to New York to pursue a life in the theater, the fear and self-doubt Douglas learned at home plays out in unstable, codependent relationships with women; understanding others comes slowly and painfully to him. At first he just needs to down a couple of cocktails to steel his nerves for a seduction. Then playwriting failures and successes provide more highs and lows for him to lubricate with liquor. He tends bar as a day job: “I drink all day on one side of the bar and drink all night on the other,” he tells a date. Eventually bottles attach to his hand, until he inevitably hits bottom and the pain of withdrawal makes it almost unimaginable for him to stop.
In the central role of his own play, Ahonen gives a terrific performance demonstrating the clarity and centeredness you might expect from something so personal. Douglas aspires to (but misses) the same emotional honesty that Ahonen displays in his writing, providing a tension that makes Douglas Evans engaging.
Another subtle playwright’s choice — and one that proves troubling at times — is to make us see other characters more or less as Douglas does. A series of girlfriends appear as temptresses, or nurturers, or both. When all the women look like needy neurotics or manipulative vixens, it can be hard to remember that we’re viewing them through a messed-up guy’s psychological filter. (There are some notable exceptions, including a self-possessed theatrical agent, also played by Weetman.)
Despite an excellent staging by director James Kautz , the carefully structured narrative occasionally feels a little too mapped out. Most of the anxieties leading Douglas to drink have recognizable psychological labels, but the play truly takes off when ambiguities run highest. In dream sequences, all the elements of his life overlap and we can sense the pressures Douglas needs to quell with booze. And in comic scenes set in acting class and rehearsal rooms, the lines between theater and life blur hilariously.
Douglas Evans will run in repertory with Enter at Forest Lawn, the Amoralists’ comic look at network television; the plays are intended as twin reflections on detrimental cycles. In Ahonen’s drama, we experience a young man’s deterioration through the prism of hindsight. The first scene presents Douglas emerging from his 30-year journey into addiction. He’s freshly returned to New York, finally sober and learning to cope with disorientating flashbacks. Sobriety means a powerful rebirth — and the playwright shrewdly spins that idea into symmetry: The play kicks off with an ending, and in the conclusion Douglas finds a new beginning.