The Essential Theatre’s new play People for Whom the World Spins and Turns is best described by its subtitle A World Premiere Play about Addiction & Recovery. It is a thoughtful and timely production by physician-playwright James J. Hsiao that makes a real contribution to understanding the challenges of our growing addiction problem.
The play is set entirely in an isolated 28-day recovery center, lovingly and accurately depicted by set designer April Joy Vester. It has the chairs for the group discussion, the communal kitchen for eating, the oft-found pool table for recreation, and the typical bedroom for rest.
The supervising counselor is Steve (Matthew Castleman), himself a recovering addict. He has a nicely representative group of four people in his care: a long-time user and repeater Daryl (James J. Johnson), who is on his fifth try at recovery; a mother Sheryl, desperate to get clean and get back to her 4-year-old son; a young abuser, college student Haley (Elle Marie Sullivan); and a white collar professional abuser, lawyer Ron (Kevin Boudreau).
Unlike many works on this subject, this story doesn’t start by showing the characters as they have hit bottom or the damage caused to loved ones by their drug habits. We only hear their stories. In fact, the two upper class Caucasian characters Ron and Haley are still in denial. They are just going through treatment as a requirement to get back to their lives since, as Haley puts it, she’s “not a real addict.”
Instead of a drama, the play at times feel more like a mystery. What secrets will be revealed from the characters’ pasts? Who may be trying to sabotage the group’s recovery efforts? Will any of the characters be able to escape the isolated locale and find a way to obtain his or her drug of choice?
People for Whom the World Spins and Turns
closes July 15, 2018
Details and tickets
What works best about the play are the individual characterizations and the depictions of the group dynamics of this disparate bunch. Details of their past lives, the sources of their drug use, and their challenges are slowly doled out in stories that are both familiar and appalling at the same time. Director S. Robert Morgan has a subtle and skillful touch in handling the characters, a talent even more impressive when we realize he is blind, directing sighted performers.
Less believable is a device to drive the plot and create a conflict late in the play. However, it serves to help reveal that the odds of recovery may not be “near impossible” as Steve warns at the start, but they are daunting.
The characters are generally well-written and very well performed. Ayesha Gowie and James J. Johnson give the most naturalistic and persuasive depictions. Elle Marie Sullivan is given the most challenging role and she rises to the occasion as perhaps the most memorable character. Kevin Boudreau shows a lot of range in his vivid portrayal of the upper-class addict. Only the role of Steve feels a little low-key and difficult, perhaps due to the exposition and lectures he is saddled with.
The play is interesting and involving throughout its two and a quarter hour running time. The ending did feel a little rushed with a coda that may be realistic but more than a little unsatisfying in neglecting the fate of most characters.
Overall People for Whom the World Spins and Turns is a well-written character piece that depicts the challenges of addiction recovery in a credible manner that avoids melodrama. It is a thought-provoking piece about an under-recognized societal problem and The Essential Theatre deserves credit for nursing its development through with this fine production.
People for Whom the World Spins and Turns by James J. Hsiao, MD. Directed by S. Robert Morgan. Featuring Matthew A. Castleman, James J. Johnson, Ayesha Gowie, Kevin S. Boudreau, and Elle Marie Sullivan. Assistant Director/Production Coordination: Manuel Abascal De Aquino. Stage Manager: Rachel A. Walsh. Set Designer: April Joy Vester. Costume Designer: Luqman Salim. Lighting Designer: Ian Claar. Sound Designer: Cresent R. Haynes. Properties Designer: Robert A. Weaver. Master Electrician: Jeremy Mayo. Produced by The Essential Theatre, S. Robert Morgan, Founder/Artistic Director. Reviewed by Steven McKnight.