Every junky knows that the first thing that happens when you stick a needle into your arm—before any narcotic reaches your veins—you give up a drop of blood. It floats in the syringe like a little red balloon.
It may not seem like much, but after a few hundred or thousand injections, they add up. This you give up to the needle: your blood; your essence.
You will not find this metaphor in The Morphine Diaries, playing this month at Fort Fringe’s Redrum, but at the end of the 75 minute production you will understand it. Originally presented as a ten-minute play, the new hour-plus format more fully explores playwright April Elizabeth Brassard’s original concept.
After a needle-park scene where we meet five junkies who carry on stream-of-consciousness for nearly fifteen minutes, the story focuses on one of them: a young woman, Elizabeth—known through most of the play as “Morphine”—a promising medical student who suddenly is afflicted with pain so intense that she cannot perform the most basic functions in her life. She will ultimately see 56 doctors about her pain. One glib physician follows another, with equally faulty diagnoses, and inevitable prescriptions for expensive medications that do not treat the actual cause of her pain. Finally, she is correctly diagnosed with Lyme Disease, but the harm is done. Through the process, she has moved through a progression of stronger pain-killers. When the Oxycontin she is taking doesn’t seem to ameliorate her pain, she finally convinces her doctor to prescribe morphine.
Our protagonist—played by Miranda Rawson– describes the sensation as “someone pressing a hot brick on my chest” while force rushes through her body. It is the first time she feels bliss. But it won’t last. Morphine is a tricky fix, and soon she’s begging her doctor to increase her dosage. The predictable spiral of addiction follows.
Some of the episodes are clichéd, yet others are stunning in their insight. She is both enabled and antagonized by two other characters: her boyfriend (Aaron Sulkin) who at first seems supportive, but soon reveals his true persona as a violent, controlling man; then there is her impulsive and self-destructive friend (Brittany Martz).
But the character who is out the most is I.V., the personification of the intravenous tube filled with antibiotics used to treat her illness. In Brassard’s original play, I.V. was simply a prop, dragged on the stage by Elizabeth. Now, it is portrayed starkly in pantomime by Molly MacKenzie, who endured covering most of her upper body in latex on a hot summer day. Given not one line, she serves as a guardian figure, a response to Elizabeth’s actions, and a silent amplification of her emotions. Whether she is friend or foe is a matter of interpretation.
The play’s nightmarish, troubled atmosphere is well suited to the closed-in urban confines of Red Rum. Here director Bethany Galyen makes the best use of the space. The low hanging lights, dressed in blue gels, are better suited for a small venue concert, and she and lighting designer Baron Pugh are inspired in their use. Alternating between a dark stage and blazing white, with a few strobe effects thrown in, the lighting (or lack thereof) are frequently used to highlight tableaus. At several points in the play, one or more characters remain completely motionless, setting up drama that will soon follow.
As intriguing as the lighting is, it is the sound that will stick in your mind. Doubling as sound designer, Galyen employs a prog-metal soundtrack through most of the drama, underscoring the nightmarish tone. “This production was an experiment in sound theatre” said Galyen after the show “I started out as a performer, then I found a niche in sound design. For a while, I was DJing, and I liked the way they introduced sound. I found a spot for it here.”
The lone reason this should not be considered must-see theater, is the very visceral way this play is presented. In an intimate setting patrons are confronted with primal emotions. After the presentation, one audience member admitted she had to control herself from jumping on the stage and intervening during a particularly violent scene. If you are willing to endure intense subject matter up close, this is one you should not miss, but heed Galyen’s warning: “It’s kinda noisy.”
You have 4 more chances to see The Morphine Diaries at Redrum – Fort Fringe, 607 New York Ave, Washington, DC.