This is all very effective, which is saying a lot. The nostrums of 12-step recovery, even with Emma resisting them bitterly, are not inherently dramatic. Montages of “I’m an addict” sharing sessions, peppered with role play and tearful confession by a strong ensemble of actors, are nothing we haven’t seen before.
Credit Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
Still, the staging gives the illusion that something dynamic and new is happening. In an odd way, Mr. Herrin’s hilarious work on the recent production of “Noises Off” at the Roundabout Theater was excellent preparation. “People, Places & Things” is a kind of inverted farce, with all the doors slamming in the other direction.
But I kept waiting for something bigger than fine stagecraft — and even Ms. Gough’s extreme, ingenious performance — to kick in. In his touching play “Every Brilliant Thing” and in the brutal adaptation of George Orwell’s “1984” he wrote with Robert Icke, Mr. Macmillan demonstrated an eagerness to keep the audience engaged in static stories at all costs, and to send it off with a big finish.
These are usually admirable instincts, and they do, for the most part, keep us from wandering as Emma goes through her recovery laps. Even during the play’s longueurs — it feels a bit padded to achieve its length — you sense that larger questions are being assembled to deliver a gut-punch reversal at the end. When it comes, you must re-evaluate what you thought you knew. But Ben Brantley was right to ask, in his New York Times review of the play’s 2015 premiere at London’s National Theater, whether that effect is “enough to make theatergoers feel that their own long, often tedious path to enlightenment has been worth it.”
His answer was no. Mine is “yes, but.” However valuable and accurate “People, Places & Things” is as a portrait of the addict’s nightmare, in and out of rehab, the play really wants to weigh in on a more fundamental issue about addiction and responsibility. And on this note it seems to waffle as much as I do in responding to it. Perhaps this is the result of a contradiction built into recovery itself, at least as structured along the 12-step model: We play a large part in our own addictions yet we are powerless over them.
Mr. Macmillan develops the argument between these two ideas in a series of confrontations with three women: the recovery center’s doctor; its therapist; and, eventually, Emma’s mother. (It is thematically useful that all are played by Barbara Marten, who is brisk as the doctor, warm as the therapist and jaw dropping as the mother.) The first two women, as advocates for a process that is fundamentally structured around acceptance of a higher power, locate the source of addiction in a breach of humility: Addiction, the doctor suggests, is caused by trauma we flatter ourselves to think we can ignore or control.
Emma furiously rejects this interpretation, in ways that many an atheist and Foucaultian will recognize. “If it’s vital to my recovery that I come to believe in a power greater than me,” Emma fulminates, “then we might all just be wasting our time.” It is, she points out, the 21st century.
And though the doctor explains that her clinic employs a “religiously neutral” modification of the 12-step template — one in which addicts express powerlessness over the three nouns that make up the play’s title — she nevertheless (Emma notices witheringly) wears a crucifix. Further, the play is all too successful in replicating the sententiousness and sanctimony of recovery jargon, at least as overheard by an outsider.
So which is it? Is recovery (as Emma first sees it) a cult of ego deflation or (as she later sees it) a spiritual and medical response to trauma? It may be reasonable to suggest that, as she recovers, her position gradually changes, her punctured actorly narcissism fizzling with a long hiss. She leaves rehab a convert to its philosophy of personal responsibility. But then, as the play closes — I won’t spoil how — we are given devastating evidence that Emma’s addiction is not her fault at all, but rather the mark of the world’s cruelty to sensitive souls.
Are we not then all addicts? Or is the play simply addicted to its own effects?
If I was troubled by Mr. Macmillan’s philosophical opportunism — the story sometimes works like a toggle switch, flipped this way and that to maintain suspense — perhaps it’s because I am leery of a mechanistic approach to “issue drama.” And to recovery. Yet it is not the playwright’s job to provide answers to such questions. It is enough that he leaves you scraping the insides of your soul, looking for your own.