"Days and Weeks After You've Seen People Places & Things, Gough's Emma will stay with you."
October 29th, 2017
A blonde woman in her mid-thirties wears black flats, navy pants, as well as a floral print bomber jacket as she speaks into her cell phone. Stumbling and slurring her speech slightly, she asks for help. Then demands it. This isn't the first time that she's made this call. And as her begging and frustration grow more fervent, we learn what she's asking the person on the other end of the line to do: clean out her apartment, rid the place of all traces of drugs, alcohol, bad ideas, and failed experiments. She's headed into rehab, and she has no interest in relapsing once she gets out.
Duncan MacMillian's People Places and Things first premiered at the National Theatre in London in 2015, and after a run at the 2016 Lawrence Oliver Awards in which it won Best Actress (Denise Gough) and Best Sound Design, the production was picked up by St. Anne's Warehouse, and premiered in October.
St. Anne's Warehouse, which moved to its current location at 45 Water Street in the Autumn of 2015, provides a striking contrast for the set and feel of People Places and Things. Whereas outside the Warehouse, Brooklyn Bridge Park hosts a few of the best views of the East River and Lower Manhattan; inside, we sit in the dark, and observe carefully as a Emma (Gough) fights with her own demons, many of which were spurned from a failing acting career, as well as a death in her family.
Days and weeks after you’ve seen People, Places and Things, Gough’s Emma will stay with you. You might think of her while you’re at a party. Or while out with friends and having a drink, you may find yourself wondering whether Emma would be drinking with you as well, or whether she’d hold off, and remain sober.
Without making her movements feel forced, Gough has a knack for walking around stage in a way that suggest that she might at any moment fall over. And through the balance of the first act, Emma parries and jousts with the doctor who checks her in, as well as the therapist (Lydia) who leads the clinic's group sessions (both played by Barbara Martin), with the quips between them serving as some as the best dialogue of the play.
As the doctor checks Emma into the clinic, and as Lydia leads the group sessions, Martin is firm though also caring in a subtle yet assuring manner. Although Emma's ready to admit that she needs help, in a nod to Betty Thomas' 2000 film starring Sandra Bullock, she suggests that she should be able to get through the whole process in about 28 Days.
Once she gets into the group sessions, when she's not hiding in her chair, she lies. And it's at this point that we're introduced to the one patient who is able break through the facade that Emma's ego has so carefully wrapped around her. As Emma begins telling of a love affair with a novelist gone awry, Mark (Nathaniel Martello-White) raises a hand and twice offers a quiet "excuse me.” Although Lydia, along with several other members of the group dismiss him, as the first act carries toward its ending, it becomes more apparent that he knows something about Emma that everyone else doesn't.
The greatest challenge of telling a story about addiction is figuring out how to take an audience into the very darkest and most turbulent recesses of a character’s heart and mind, without having the character lose the audience’s empathy. As we watch someone else unravel, no matter how dark it gets, we want to be able to say and feel: I know that hurt, that pain, and I feel for the person who is going through that.
Unfortunately, aside from her phone call at the beginning of the play, we don’t get to see Emma’s life outside of the clinic before she checks herself in; however, through Mark’s pressing and the wonderfully-crafted monologues from Emma that their camaraderie brings forth, we get a sense of the depth of the pain which Emma has brought into the clinic’s doors.
Gough more than meets the challenge of an actress playing an actress. As Emma describes the excitement that she gets from being on the stage, and how she finds it easier to feel the pain of the characters that she plays, rather than actually engaging with the struggles that make up the realities of her own dull and boring life; we watch, comforted, knowing that it’s impossible to watch Emma tell her story without considering our own relationship with dependency and addiction. And although Emma doesn’t try to hold up every audience member’s history of trying to quit, failing, trying again, and perhaps, failing again, and then perhaps trying again; through a story that relies on honesty to hit just the right note, between severity and delight, People Places and Things, in an untraceable yet certain manner, helps.