Years ago, I saw a TV clip in which the artist Damien Hirst wore a T-shirt that read, “REHAB IS FOR QUITTERS.” I chuckled then, just as I smiled during the opening minutes of Duncan Macmillan’s thorny study of addiction, People, Places & Things. Hard-partying British actor Emma (Denise Gough) checks herself into a clinic after too many blackouts and missed cues. She’s stratospheric on a panic cocktail of wine, gin, coke, speed, Valium, beta blockers, ibuprofen, “and a multivitamin.” In short, Emma is a mess — and this is, at first, hilarious to watch. Legs doing the spaghetti, voice slurring and braying, “cunting” her mum on the mobile as she valiantly tries to light a cigarette, Gough executes a bravura piece of physical comedy. Who doesn’t enjoy a stage drunk? It’s the hangover that kills the laugh.
Macmillan’s not out to rub our nose in Emma’s abjection for mean chuckles. Neither are he and director Jeremy Herrin satisfied with the tidy, puritanical arc of addiction to recovery that has been peddled in countless books and films. But unless your play is going to come out strongly in favor of high-functioning, long-term substance abuse, what is there to add to the genre? Two things: an honest critique of the wobbly psycho-dramatics and religiosity that underpin recovery programs, and a battery of theatrical effects (strobes, assaultive electronica) that evokes the adrenalized blur of getting high and the existential horror of withdrawal. Utilizing the two tactics — one hitting the head, the other the gut — People, Places & Things clears a space in which we can focus on a more elusive question: Who is Emma, stripped of drugs and nihilism?
Our strung-out pilgrim is an eternally shifting target. She checks in as “Nina,” nicked from her latest role, in Chekhov’s The Seagull. Soon she cops to “Emma,” her designated name in the script. But that’s just a stage moniker; she’s really “Sarah,” or at least that’s what she tells her rehab buddy, Mark (Nathaniel Martello-White). Then, in a late, nerve-scraping scene back home, her emotionally withholding mum (Barbara Marten) and dad (Kevin McMonagle) call her “Lucy.” The masks keep dropping. During her first night in rehab, sick and jittery, Emma imagines clones, identically dressed, crawling out of her bed and slipping through the walls, her room suddenly crowded with duplicates of herself. Is Emma nothing more than a theatrical illusion? Is an addict only real and whole when high?
The script was diligently researched by Macmillan and the cast through visits to a real treatment facility called Freedom, in southeast London. Accordingly, Herrin’s staging and the acting approach (by a strong ensemble) hews to a baseline of gritty naturalism. But the script is studded with brainy debates about the dubious intellectual foundations of twelve-step programs, the efficacy of group therapy and role-play, and even the possible moral nullity of sobriety itself. “There are people dying of thirst,” Emma rants during one session. “People living in war zones and here we are thinking about ourselves.… We’re not defective. It’s the world that’s fucked. Shouldn’t we feel good for all those who can’t? Don’t we owe it to them to say, ‘Fuck this, let’s drink?’ ” Such contrarian arias — sobriety as the luxury of the Western ruling class — are a bit too clever, but they nicely complement the institutional realism and the surreal flourishes.
The role of Emma (or whoever) is red meat for an actor, a chance to do the smashed-out-of-my-gourd routine, the night shakes, to hit rock bottom, to sass the therapist and play rabble-rouser in the asylum. Wiry, raw, and tough as nails, Gough is so spontaneous and visceral, you nearly forget how hard she’s working — how many pivots and layers the role requires. I can’t remember a performance that seemed to demand so much psychic and physical intensity from a performer, without losing its intellectual edge. Well, maybe I can: Mark Rylance’s strutting Bacchus in Jerusalem, another drugged-out anarchist and pure authorial confection, imbued with a great performer’s raging life force. Gough crafts a meticulously detailed portrait of a woman traumatized by a homogenized culture and parental neglect, who shovels mountains of drugs into the hole of her modern, excavated self. She makes a brutal, unsentimental, but ultimately honest journey. Rehab is a dangerous gamble, and Emma cleans up.