“It’s the nouns you have to look out for…the people, places, and things…,” is a poignant line in People, Places, and Things, on stage now to May 22 at the D’Youville Kavinoky Theatre. This is a powerful story about addiction and recovery, the death-defying lows and the terrifying highs that are part of this very human condition.
You’re used to seeing a few serious, soulful dramas every year in this lovely space. You’ve probably seen plenty of plays and movies where someone is drinking or using. Chances are someone in your family or circle of loved ones is struggling with something similar. But you’ve probably never seen a production that is so intense, so gripping, and so well executed as this. Director Kate Mallinson and the cast with Aleks Malejs in the lead role put their hearts into this and it shows in every word and movement. And no, I’m not overselling this. Duncan MacMillan’s play is remarkable and this cast and crew elevated this work to become an experience.
Malejs is Emma, an actor who – in the opening scene – loses focus on-stage during a production of Chekhov’s The Seagull. A series of flashbacks show snippets of her life, dancing, clubbing, using…until she crashes and checks into rehab. There she’s haunted by images of herself (Mallinson created some special stage magic here) as she’s trying to control the uncontrollable state of her being. She falters, fails, tries again. It’s not a cliché to say that she triumphs in the end: every day is a new challenge, a new struggle on the road to sobriety.
This is raw, exquisite work by Malejs, who by day in her ‘real life’ is a Peer Specialist for Save the Michaels of the World, Inc. She has lived experience and she brings that to her performance tenfold. She’s not some doddering drunk or strung out junky: her character is complex, endearing, frustrating. She’s alone with her acting career where she’s surrounded by characters and and offstage, she’s haunted by familial pain. Those two halves make a very troubling, human whole. Maureen Ann Porter is the center’s doctor, therapist, and later Emma’s mum. She trebly ironic here: in one character she’s understanding and supportive. In another role she’s wary, tired, and bitterly disappointed. It’s a wonder to see Porter shift like this. Gregory Gjurich, one of the region’s most versatile comedic actors, is Emma’s dad and a variety of ensemble roles where his skill for drama is mesmerizing. He preaches his addiction to heroin with the passion of clergyman. (There are glimmers of humor sprinkled in the script. After a twisted and prayerful monologue, Emma is encouraged to say “amen,” she’s hesitant until she’s reminded that it’s like hitting ‘send’ on an email. In another exchange with the same peer counselor, she scoffs “are all your references from cartoons? Read a book!”) Ah, humanity. Ben Michael Moran, Gabriella McKinley, Diane DiBernardo, Dylan Zalikowski, Afrim Gjonbalaj, Christopher Guilmet, and Michele Roberts effortlessly slide in and out of their ensemble roles gracefully. You do get the sense that this ensemble – in real life – connected perhaps through common bonds or their actor’s empathy. As the cast when they chant “don’t come back” as their fellow clients leave rehab, there is strength and hope in their sincerity.
David King designed a deceptively simple set that frames the stage action as well as it does the projection crafted by Nicholas Taboni. Through Taboni’s choices, Brian Cavanagh’s lighting, and Geoffrey Tocin’s sound, we are in Emma’s psyche as it sorts through layers of images and influences. Diane Almeter Jones and Amber Greer and Andrea Letcher round out the team with props and costumes that knit the visual experience together so well.
D’Youville Kavinoky waited a few years for this one (thank you, COVID), and perhaps that has added to its relevance. The isolation and fear of COVID is making us more aware of mental health diagnoses and addiction struggles. Executive Artistic Director Loraine O’Donnell made some very thoughtful programming choices by inviting area behavioral health agencies to share information on Thursday evenings and participate in a post-show talk-back. She also suspended sales of alcoholic beverages on Thursday nights, too.
COVID has truncated the show’s run, so make ticket arrangements now at kavinokytheatre.com. The show runs for two hours with a 20-minute intermission. Bright lights and some strobes may be uncomfortable for some audience members. Trigger warning: smoking, drug use, alcohol references, and suicidal ideations are prevalent. Help and hope is just a click away: