New Stage Play 'People, Places & Things' Doesn't Sugarcoat Addiction

By Britni de la Cretaz 11/01/17

The British play aims to disrupt "tired old stereotypes about addicts."

still image from people places & things trailer
Still image from the trailer for People, Places & Things.

A British smash hit has come to the American stage. People, Places & Things tells the story of Emma, an actress who checks into rehab and begins the process of trying to get well. Playwright Duncan Macmillan wanted to address the complexity and struggle of addiction and recovery without falling into tired stereotypes. The result is a play that has received rave reviews and praise from critics.

As an actress, the character of Emma is very adept at lying and pretending, which many people in active addiction are, as well. As a result, Emma is perhaps “an unreliable narrator,” and yet the play is “a thrilling, devastating and, yes, deeply unreliable look at recovery from the muddled inside,” according to the New York Times.

As the description of the show explains, “Her first step is to admit that she has a problem… She needs to tell the truth. But she’s smart enough to know that there’s no such thing.”

"On paper it sounds like a nightmare at the theater, right? You know, watching an actress who's addicted to drugs trying to get clean and sober," Denise Gough, who plays Emma, told NPR. "But actually, it's just a metaphor for a person who wears masks in all her areas and then trying to keep all the masks going."

Indeed, the show asks “when intoxication feels like the only way to survive the modern world, how will [Emma] ever sober up?” It’s a question that’s familiar to anyone who has ever battled addiction. When drinking and drug use are the best coping mechanism and survival skill you have, finding a way to live without it often feels impossible and undesirable.

Macmillan told NPR that he wanted to avoid stereotypical and tired narratives about people who are addicted to substances, "that they're these tragic people who can only die to serve the narrative.” Instead, he said, he “was interested in sort of redressing that and trying to find a way to accurately represent and respectfully represent the daily struggle and the daily work of living in recovery."

True to its subject matter, the show does not end tied neatly with a bow. "You don't know at the end of the play if she's going to be all right," Gough told NPR. "And that's really important, because we can't know. I didn't want to be in a play that sugarcoated any of this. There's no point. I've met and know and I've been around too many people who have suffered this disease to go on stage and say there's a happy ending. We don't know that. It's one day at a time."

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Britni de la Cretaz is a freelance writer, baseball enthusiast, and recovered alcoholic living in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @britnidlc.