In “People, Places & Things”, addiction remains a challenge

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Unsympathetic doesn’t begin to describe Emma, ​​the relapsed anti-heroine and cross-addict from Duncan Macmillan’s “People, Places & Things.” Unaware of what she is doing to her loved ones, toxic to her colleagues, deceitfully abusive of her therapy team, Emma is the offensive sum of her dysfunctional parts.

A musical, in other words, it is not. And without a compelling twist in this pivotal role, Studio Theater’s “People, Places & Things” would be a truly nerve-wracking session. But director David Muse found in Kristen Bush a performer who perfectly masters the formidable task at hand, which is to ward off Emma as her own worst enemy in the process of recovery while remaining compelling enough that an audience doesn’t feel thrown. in a desert of indifference.

Bush fulfills the essential mission and more, convincingly enlisting us as witnesses to the wreckage of his character’s life, and at the same time building on an audience’s stubborn belief in redemption. “People, Places & Things” takes us far and wide on a branch with Emma, ​​testing our faith in both a resilient patient and the effectiveness of 12-step treatment programs.

If anything keeps us involved in this rather familiar dramatic setup, it’s the almost clinical unraveling of Emma’s pathology, the sense that we’re in with Emma as she confuses counselors at a rehab center. British and undermines other addicts. She’s a suspicious drug addict. Macmillan – who in 2011 premiered another of his works, “Lungs”, at the Studio – takes us deep into territory that has been covered extensively before, in feature films, TV series, self-help shows from day and in-depth newspaper articles.

The production of Muse, staged like a fashion show at the Victor Shargai Theater between opposing benches, offers other standout performances, including Jahi Kearse as a drug addict with a more grounded perspective. value of the treatment, and of Jeanne Paulsen as a doctor who gently encourages Emma’s best impulses. You won’t come out of “People, Places & Things” – a phrase here denoting the myriad potential threats to consistent sobriety – with plenty of new edification. What you get is a scrupulously lucid account of a person’s seduction by mind-altering narcotics and the horrific struggle to loosen their grip.

If that and Emma’s ruthless portrayal fascinate you, then you’re a potentially satisfied customer for the 2.5-hour drama. I hesitate because the subject is so lacking in novelty and moves only reluctantly from the predictable. When we meet her, Emma is an actress in an Ibsen drama, fainting mid-stage and soon purposely landing in a clinic; Much of the play revolves not only around Emma’s ambivalence about a cure, but also the deception skills she’s honed on stage.

“People, Places & Things” is set primarily in the clinic’s therapy rooms, where actors portraying fellow drug and alcohol addicts reveal their stories and play roles with each other. The point is to face the truth, and the truth is Emma’s kryptonite; she wears dishonesty as casually as a hospital gown. Even though Emma’s defenses are gradually being torn down, Macmillan, to his credit, doesn’t offer Emma a great epiphany. Or ready answers. There are suggestions of a childhood in an emotionally cold home, but many people survive a deficit of caring parents without sniffing chemicals. or gourmet bottles of vodka.

The question of who loses control, and why, remains unresolved. The concrete matter of the play is the irreparable harm Emma does to anyone who trusts her. Perhaps the most powerful scene in the story occurs at the end, when Emma’s parents – played enthusiastically by David Manis and Paulsen – have the opportunity to tell her directly what they think. It’s not at all what she expects to hear, and at this point the audience, as unwitting accomplices, is also a little surprised at how it turns out. This is where “People, Places & Things” strays the most from the addiction story formula. The process does not always pave the way to forgiveness.

Debra Booth’s sets hint at the institutional blandness of an environment with few social distractions, but something could be done for the thumps one hears, offstage left and right, as the actors deal with the beds and other equipment they turn on and off. (A delay occurred after one of the props hit a door and caused some sort of malfunction.) Music by Lindsay Jones and lighting by Andrew Cissna add commendably to the harshness of the journey that Emma cut herself.

Bush’s uncompromising performance makes Emma’s nihilistic abdication of responsibility a virtue, pushing others beyond the limits of their patience. You learn that while recovery is an important step, not everything in life can be recovered.

People, places and things, by Duncan Macmillan. Directed by David Muse. Together, Debra Booth; costumes, Helen Q. Huang; lighting, Andrew Cissna; sound and original music, Lindsay Jones; projection, Alex Basco Koch. With Nathan Whitmer, Lise Bruneau, Tessa Klein, Derek Garza, Lynnette R. Freeman, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh. About 2h30. Until December 11 at the Studio Theater, 1501 14th St. NW. studiotheatre.org.

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