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Both reality TV and self-help talk shows pretty much suck, but the premise behind them (at its most abstract) doesnít. Buried somewhere amongst all the muck is the idea that the stories of ordinary people can have resonance for other ordinary people, and that both the telling and the hearing of these stories are needed social functions.
Currently on stage at Mad Horse is a show thatís much truer to that idea than, say, the Swan. Adapted from Gary Lennonís full-length play Blackout, (which also became a 1996 film, with actors Spaulding Gray and Faye Dunaway), Drunks (directed by Christine Louise Marshall) is a one-act chain of monologues, told in succession by the attendees of an AA meeting in the basement of a Times Square church.
Many of these folks live under extenuating circumstances for which alcohol would seem an inevitable tonic. For Shelley (the mildly sardonic Shannon Campbell), staying with her mother in a small apartment without the benefit of booze is something of a challenge, to put it mildly, and she waxes rhapsodic about her dream of knowing her mom "on something like chocolate-covered Valium, or Ecstasy."
Things are more severe for Brenda (Elizabeth Chambers, whose graceful honesty is almost ethereal), stranded by a youth of needles with the HIV virus. To drink her way into respite might seem the unavoidable course ("Why not have a drink when youíve got AIDS?" as she matter-of-factly puts it), yet her show of spine makes abstinence the much more brazen choice. Indeed, itís each characterís courage that stands beside alcoholism as their uniting trait, as each braves self-revelation in front of the others.
The form of the monologue and the fraught nature of this subject matter could easily lead to showboating and irritating melodrama, but under Marshallís direction these actors are admirably restrained and thoughtful. An AA meeting is a great vehicle for character study, monologues being its natural currency of communication, and Mad Horseís actors seize upon that, making the show one of many layers and tenors.
Some, like Francine (Darci LaFayette), have a relatively light history with alcohol, have kept their problems recreational, and have suffered no lasting consequences. For Rachel (Jessica Porter), a doctor, on the other hand, substance abuse is an occupational hazard, what with the tension, long hours, and easy access to Demerol. The contrast in tone between the storytelling of these two women is a good illustration of the range that Drunks achieves: LaFayetteís Francine chatters out her history as if she were at a social club, while Porterís well-measured and intelligent Rachel displays an almost clinical quality to her self-confrontation. And for comic relief, look to Lisa Muller-Jonesís joyfully raucous Debbie.
"Want to talk about bad blackouts?" she asks the group. "I was married in one." And to a fellow who went by the name "Wild Bob," no less.
The set is simple and barren, just a few rows of folding chairs and a table set up with coffee and cookies, and Joan Sandís lighting design keeps everything stark, unsentimental, and a just a touch claustrophobic. The cast manages to convey an utter familiarity with their setting and culture, and its odd little rituals. The introduction ó "Hi, Iím Jim, and Iím an alcoholic" ó has entered the realm of cliché in mainstream culture, and itís compelling to hear these actors reload it with meaning and weight. And when the rest of the group responds, in unison, "Hi, Jim," the strange blend of intimacy and anonymity it suggests is both warm and eerie.
As tempting as it might be to fixate on whichever character is currently taking their turn, itís worth glancing around the rest of the group occasionally, for the textured presence they and Marshallís direction lend the setting. The convened alcoholics alternately knit, shift in seats, hold and break gazes, and emit the rare wordless sound or movements of empathy.
The gathering in the church basement also includes a latecomer, Louis (Brent Askari), who has simply gotten lost looking for choir practice. "My God," goes his first reaction, "I never knew the choir had that many problems." But once he figures it out, he contributes his own monologue, a sort of narrative foil. His meditation on the larger culture of drinking is a good bit of writing on Lennonís part, and Askari delivers it with a whimsical verbal saunter that contrasts exceptionally well with the need in the voices of the rest of the cast. Their narratives, and the wills behind them, justifiably fascinate him.
Indeed, one of the most interesting facets of AA is that it is one of the few places where folks are asked to tell their stories, without interruption, until they have said all they want. Itís a phenomenon thatís naturally suited to the stage, where it is a welcome change of dramatic pace to hear peopleís stories dispensed in such large doses. Drunks is a generous but unromanticized homage to all those stories ó in AA and beyond ó told bravely in bad light and underground.
Megan Grumbling can be reached at email@example.com
Issue Date: April 22 - 28, 2005
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