Stoned, strung out, and stumbling, her mascara streaking her cheeks, Emma is an actress addicted to such a plethora of substances that it’s a miracle she’s not dead. But in Studio Theatre’s propulsive production of Duncan Macmillan’s People, Places & Things, which tells the story of Emma’s tortured and tortuous recovery, the real miracle is the actor who brings Emma shatteringly to life: Kristen Bush. She is onstage the entire two acts. She is the magnetic epicenter of every scene. Her raw inner emotions seem not just exposed but turned inside out. Hers is a performance you will be transfixed and intoxicated by. And you will wonder how on earth she does it.
That a play about such wretched excess begins benignly is but one of Director David Muse’s ingenious choices. As we the audience enter the theater, we hear the prerecorded sound of … an audience entering a theater. And we face a blank white curtain. That’s the last ho-hum moment we’ll have, as suddenly a loud sound pounds, a bright light explodes, the curtain parts, and we are watching an enactment of Chekhov’s The Seagull. The actress Emma is playing Nina, already wasted.
Cut as if cinematically to a rave in a club with throbbing techno music and gyrating, high-flying habitués — including our heroine Emma — brazenly indulging their habits.
Then cut to a staid rehab clinic, where Emma, in a stupor, has arrived badly in need of some blow, a line of which she does on the admissions counter. She is out of her mind, as is evident from the hallucinatory projections, lighting, music and sound (Alex Basco Koch, Andrew Cissna, Lindsay Jones, respectively) — all of which have the uncanny effect of putting us inside the mind that Emma is out of.
Thus begins our mind-churning immersion into a hyper-theatricalized psychic world of addiction that will entail scenes of denial, deceit, excruciating withdrawal, and rescue. Quite enjoyably if disconcertingly, the sobering script is shot through with humor, especially Emma’s scathing sarcasm, which keeps us on her side, even as she self-sabotages.
The set designed by Debra Booth is see-through: The audience sits on either side of a boxed stage, watching the other half watch — a stunning transformation of the new Victor Shargai. The concept is akin to Luciana Stecconi’s design at Studio five years ago for The Effect, also directed by Muse, and it functions brilliantly, now as then, to incorporate the audience’s self-consciousness into a story about consciousness and self.
The play is obviously about addiction and recovery; more profoundly it is about the existential chaos of a life not lived as oneself. “Truth is difficult when you lie for a living,” says the actress in a session with her therapist. “If I’m not in character I’m not sure I’m really there.”
DOCTOR: Do you lie to protect yourself or your addiction?
EMMA: It’s not lying. It’s admitting there’s no truth to begin with.
Emma’s crisis of self is a veritable abyss.
EMMA: There is no meaning to anything. There are no beginnings, middles and ends. No final authorities. No fate or pre-determination or grand plan. History has ended. There are no new ideas or experiences. No free will. Identity is a construct and the brain is incapable of objectively introspecting itself.
Little wonder that drugs can seem for some to make it all better. The play helps us understand that.
Notable among the key players in Emma’s recovery saga is Jeanne Paulsen, who appears as Emma’s take-no-bullshit shrink, her sensible group therapy leader, and her judgmental mother — a trio reflecting Emma’s blurred vision.
Also outstanding in the superb cast are Jahi Kearse as Mark, a fellow addict in group who befriends Emma and then is there for her as a staffer when she relapses, and David Manis as Paul, a certifiable psychotic, later as Emma’s forbidding father.
The play’s title refers to the triggers in life that a recovering addict needs to recognize and avoid.
DOCTOR: Instead of declaring ourselves powerless over alcohol or drugs we admit that we are powerless over people, places and things. People who make us want to relapse, places we associate with using and things that reactivate old behavior.
Whether the play itself is a trigger will be an individual matter that one may not know till one sees it. (Be advised that just before intermission, Emma, totally wrecked, jovially invites everyone, the audience included, “Let’s all just have a drink.”) But of this much, you can be certain: If you do decide to see People, Places & Things, which I highly recommend, you will not soon shake Kristen Bush’s tour de force performance. And so indelible will you find her identification as an artist with the character of Emma that you will hope they will be okay … one day at a time.
Running Time: Two hours 15 minutes with a 15-minute intermission.
People, Places & Things plays through December 11, 2022, in the Victor Shargai Theatre at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th Street NW, Washington, DC. For tickets ($50 –$95, with low-cost options and discounts available), go online or call the box office at 202-332-3300.
December 3 (2 PM): Sign-interpreted performance
December 4 (2 PM): Audio described performance
The program for People, Places & Things is online here.
COVID Safety: Masks are required while in the performance space. Masks are strongly encouraged in all other areas of the building. Studio Theatre’s complete Health and Safety protocols are here.
People, Places & Things
By Duncan Macmillan
Directed by David Muse
Emma: Kristen Bush
Doctor/Others: Jeanne Paulsen
Paul/Others: David Manis
Foster: Nathan Whitmer
Mark/Others: Jahi Kearse
Charlotte/Others: Lise Bruneau
Laura/Others: Tessa Klein
Shaun/Others: Derek Garza
Jodi/Others: Lynnette R. Freeman
T/Others: Maboud Ebrahimzadeh
Ensemble: Emily Erickson
U/S Paul/Others: David Bryan Jackson
U/S Foster, Shaun, & T: Keith Rubin
U/S Ensemble: Jordan Crow
Set Designer: Debra Booth
Costume Designer: Helen Q Huang
Lighting Designer: Andrew Cissna
Original Music and Sound Design: Lindsay Jones
Projections/Media: Alex Basco Koch
Props Consultant: Holden Gunster
Voice, Text, and Dialect Coach: Elizabeth Forte Alman
Movement/Choreographer: Tony Thomas
Intimacy Director: Chelsea Pace
Dramaturg: Adrien-Alice Hansel
Production Stage Manager: Lauren Pekel
AEA Assistant Stage Manager: Stephen Bubniak
Casting: Kate Murray, CSA