The boarding house play is a staple in theater. Assorted folks who might otherwise never cross paths are thrown together by a playwright who then grips us with their backstories, intertwined character arcs, big reveals, and badinage. Sometimes the setting is a rooming house (Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman’s Stage Door), a hotel (Lanford Wilson’s The Hot L Baltimore), a flop house (Tennessee Williams’s Vieux Carré)…you get the idea. Perhaps the boarding house play is such a quintessentially American genre because we buy the melting pot idea abstractly but know how hard it is to get along.
The Essential Theatre is now presenting a world premiere play about five recovering addicts who are all in a kind of boarding house, a 28-day recovery center. Written by James J. Hsiao, MD, and directed by Founder/Artistic Director S. Robert Morgan, People for Whom the World Spins and Turns has all the best qualities of the classic boarding house drama: a miscellany of fascinating characters whose conflicts, quirks, and compulsions keep us riveted. But People for Whom the World Spins and Turns adds a twist from another classic genre: Once the story gets cranking, it becomes a wickedly clever whodunnit.
The mysterious culprit commits not a murder but rather an invidious breach of recovery program protocols. Someone—we don’t find out who till the stunner end—is planting addictive substances in the common room to make the other residents fail, to tempt them into falling off the wagon: a bottle of beer, pot-laced brownies, a bag of white powder. Multiple people are implicated with motives and means, and the suspense steadily builds.
Besides the sturdy script, what makes the show gripping is the caliber and intensity of the acting. Morgan’s brisk direction has the cast hopped up on so much energy that the combative patches of dialog ricochet and the intimate monologues hit hard.
Honesty in rehab is not only highly valued but essential. Each of the characters has a compelling story to tell, and each of the skilled actors seems to have lived each character’s life viscerally.
Steve (Matthew A. Castleman) is on staff and the group’s facilitator. His parents were killed in a car accident by a guy who was DUI. Steve turned to drugs in his depression. He’s been clean for three years but he knows how hard it is to quit.
Haley (Elle Marie Sullivan), a feisty college student, has been forced into rehab by her father as a condition of paying more tuition. Her mother died of breast cancer, on drugs to ameliorate the chemo pain. That got Haley started. She’s angry and flirty and acerbically astute (“Even when it comes to drugs, women suffer more.”)
Ron (Kevin S. Boudreau), a hotshot, driven lawyer, also doesn’t believe he belongs in rehab, but his firm has mandated it if he expects to make partner. He’s rich and can afford a pharmacopia of pricey drugs, which he deludedly believes he can indulge in without being impaired.
Daryl (James J. Johnson) was born a crack baby, was a drug runner as a kid, and continued to deal into young adulthood until he was using more than he could sell. He’s a regular relapser, been to rehab five times already, and is so much at home he brings a Bob Marley poster for his bedroom wall.
Cheryl (Ayesha Gowie) tells perhaps the most heartrending story. A boyfriend got her hooked then abandoned her (“He loved his dope more than he loved me”). To pay for her habit, she sold her body. And four years ago she bore a son, whom she cannot see.
Set Designer April Joy Vester locates the characters’ self-disclosures within institutional gray walls. There’s a common area with kitchen, mismatched chairs, and a pool table where several games are played. Sound Designer Crescent R. Hayes offers inter-scene music by turns eerie and new agey. Costume Designer Luqman Salim provides the characters a catchall of casual lounge-around-home-home attire, complete with flip-flops and scuffies.
The characters vacillate between propping one another up with pep talks and bromides and undermining one another in anger and rancor. Lighting Designer Ian Claar transitions nicely between characters’ tense scenes together and their revelatory inner monologues addressed to the audience.
One learns a lot about addiction in People for Whom the World Spins and Turns, but it always feels organic, never like infotainment. And the excellence of theatrical craft on display in The Essential Theatre production makes it consistently engrossing and kind of a high.
Running Time: Two hours, including one intermission.
People for Whom the World Spins and Turns plays through July 15, 2018, at The Essential Theatre performing at the Anacostia Playhouse – 2020 Shannon Place, SE, in Washington DC. Tickets are available online.