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Theatre in Review: People, Places & Things (Headlong/National Theatre/St. Ann's Warehouse)

Denise Gough (center) and company. Photo: Teddy Wolff

Suddenly, this is looking like the season of Denise Gough. Not really known in the US, despite her extensive stage and television credits in the UK, she made a big impression as the embattled, pill-popping Mormon housewife Harper Pitt in Marianne Elliott's epic staging of Angels in America, first seen here last summer through National Theatre Live broadcasts and coming to Broadway in the spring. Right now, however, she's doing scorching work as Emma, an actress spiraling down into a vortex of booze and drugs, in Duncan Macmillan's new drama. Macmillan, you may remember, was the coauthor and codirector (with Robert Icke) of last summer's 1984, a production that combined disorienting visual and sound effects with a taste for brutal confrontations and an almost clinical interest in human suffering. As directed by Jeremy Herrin, People, Places & Things offers more of the same, but in a far more personal -- and, in its way, more scalding -- context.

When we first meet Emma, she is playing Nina in a revival of The Seagull -- at least she's trying. Half in the bag, she tries to pull together some semblance of her lines while her Konstantin struggles to keep her on track. (In her first big laugh, Emma, as Nina, says, "I don't know what to do with my hands onstage," while she staggers around, looking for a soft place to land.) In a flash, she is in the lobby of a rehab facility, sozzled to the gills with enough substances to stock a bar and pharmacy, lurching drunkenly and barking into the phone like a fishwife, ordering the disposal of her home stash of pills and liquor. (The identity of the person on the other end of the line cues the next big laugh.) Really, Emma intends only to stick around long enough to dry out and pick up a certificate that says she is fit to go back to work. Instead, cornered by pressure and a touch of blackmail, she ends up agreeing, more or less, to a 28-day stay.

The facility is run on the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous, and Emma, a hostile patient, at first refuses to take part in meetings, keeping a sullen distance and, later, manufacturing stories about her past. (In one especially amusing moment, another patient calls her out, noting that Emma has too-obviously recycled the plot of Hedda Gabler.) Emma is particularly contemptuous of AA's reliance on the fuzzily imagined "higher power," insisting that it is an insult to her intelligence. ("I really need you to be cleverer than this," she tells her doctor, in a tone that is equally imperious and desperate.) Not until she flees the hospital, going on a tear and returning bowed and bloody, does she begin the hard work of confronting the pain that has brought her to this rock-bottom moment.

Sound like the stuff of a hundred dreary Lifetime films and inspirational tomes? Think again. Emma is, in the words of another patient, "a nightmare" and "a human hand grenade," estimations that aren't far off, and, for her, the road to sobriety is a treacherous one, leading to a resolution that is equivocal at best. Desperate for help, yet possessed of a slashing intelligence, she ruthlessly deconstructs the treatment that is her only hope: "You want me to conceptualize a universe in which I am the sole agent of my destiny and at the same time acknowledge my absolute powerlessness. It's a fatal contradiction and I won't start building foundations on a flawed premise." And yet, as she admits, without the help on offer, she might soon be dead.

Herrin and his creative team have all sorts of ways of signaling the depth Emma's distress. The set designer, /Bunny Christie, has created a sleek white trapezoid that stands in for a theatre, the rehab center, and, later, the bedroom of Emma's childhood home. During detox, Tom Gibbons' sound design pulverizes the air with sinister effects while Andrzej Goulding, the video/projection designer, splashes the walls with abstract bursts of color; under the din, we can barely hear Emma talking, as half a dozen members of the company, dressed and bewigged to look just like her, run frantically about. It's a vivid symbol of mental and emotional disintegration; she is practically shedding identities, right before our eyes. When Emma, in meetings with the other patients, feels stressed, Goulding's imagery makes clocks bend and twist and the walls crack open, shedding bricks like so much scaly skin.

These devices fade away in the second act as Emma zooms in on the source of her agony. Taking part in a role-playing exercise in which she imagines speaking to her parents about the loss of her brother and her sorrow over the years of self-destructive behavior -- among other things, she has robbed them to feed her addictions -- she begins to approach the honesty that alone can save her. She is told not to put too much stock in the possibility of parental forgiveness, a warning that seems only too prescient when she finally faces her mother and father, who are ground down by years of disappointment and stoic grief. In this scene, Macmillan's bluntly unsentimental handling of Emma's recovery is hair-raisingly evident; it contains at least two revelations that evoked gasps from the audience at the performance I attended.

Throughout, Gough gives the kind of performance of which careers are made -- hilariously awful when drunk, dazzlingly on the offensive when sober, and, finally, moving, as she learns to let down her guard, only to absorb psychological blows -- from her so-called loved ones -- that might devastate a much stronger person. The actress sees to it that even Emma's most extreme moments are flecked with wit, and she brings an almost voluptuous sense of surrender as she insists, "Drugs and alcohol have never let me down. They have always loved me." Herrin also gets fine work from Barbara Marten, triple-cast as Emma's quietly relentless doctor, her therapist, and her chilly, composed mother; Nathaniel Martello-White as another patient, who lends Emma cigarettes and sympathy; and Kevin McMonagle as the center's most hapless patient and as Emma's withdrawn father.

The rest of the production, including Christina Cunningham's costumes and James Farncombe's lighting, is equally assured. The title of the play refers to the three aspects of life that Emma can't control, yet which threaten to trigger her drinking and drugging. Ultimately, she faces them down -- not necessarily triumphantly and with no real rush of forgiveness -- but still; as the final, brilliantly cut-off final scene shows, she is learning to muddle through, as best she can -- and, as miracles go, that's a pretty good one. -- David Barbour

(26 October 2017)

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