Clean/through Plumbs the Depths of Addiction

Although the subject matter might seem depressing, even the darkest play can be enjoyable if it’s well-executed, and even the peppiest play can be depressing if it’s a theatrical failure. Let’s just say that I leftclean/through with a smile on my face.

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Clean/through, an intense new drama by Catastrophic Theatre resident playwright Miki Johnson, begins in an apartment that resembles one of IKEA’s pleasantly banal demonstration rooms—that is, until you notice that the coffee table is covered with beer cans, liquor bottles, cigarette packs, and drug paraphernalia. A young woman in torn jeans and combat boots leans over the table and snorts a line of cocaine, while the sallow-cheeked, hollow-eyed young man sitting next to her takes a swig from a bottle of Jim Beam before cooking up some heroin in a spoon and injecting it into his arm. From their conversation, we learn that the man, Nick, is a prominent Los Angeles musician whose picture graces magazine covers but whose long-time drug and alcohol abuse is taking a toll on his career, as well as his relationship with the woman, his girlfriend Rachel. 

Between lines of coke, Rachel tries to convince Nick to enter rehab. She gets support in this effort from her sister Annie, who walks into the apartment while Nick is still shooting up. Under pressure from the two women, Nick reluctantly agrees to get clean, and the scene shifts to a different part of the stage, where we see Nick in the throes of withdrawal, flailing around in a tub. (The ingenious set, designed by Ryan McGettigan, is divided into five distinct areas to represent different locations, which are only lit up when something is happening there. Not only does this avert the need for scene changes, but it allows Johnson to set scenes in two or more locations simultaneously.)

Nick comes back from rehab having apparently kicked heroin, but quickly relapses and moves out of his apartment, abandoning Rachel only to wash up in an East L.A. flophouse with a homeless woman and fellow junkie. “I don’t know why I want to be high all day, every day,” Nick tells Rachel by way of explanation for his departure. “I just do.”

The play is especially timely considering Philip Seymour Hoffman’s recent death after overdosing on heroin, but in fact it was another celebrity tragedy that inspired the play. Johnson has said that clean/through was based in part on the life and music of Elliott Smith, arguably the greatest singer-songwriter of his generation, who, like Nick, began using heroin to cope with the pressure of fame. After releasing five albums filled with hauntingly beautiful songs, Smith died in 2003, at the of age 34, of two stab wounds to the chest, probably self-inflicted (although some people speculate that he was killed by his girlfriend, who was present at the time of the incident). Smith’s songs constitute the pre-show soundtrack and provide transition music between scenes, making the connections between him and Nick impossible to ignore.

Like many of Smith’s songs, clean/through is a meditation on depression, loneliness, alienation, and addiction. But just as Smith’s music is buoyed by his lovely melodies—his favorite band was The Beatles—Johnson’s play reveals the beauty hidden in even the most sordid situations, and the hope clinging to apparently hopeless lives. Much of the credit for humanizing the play’s characters goes to the actors, especially John DeLoach as Nick, Jessica Janes as Rachel, and Candice D’Meza as Nick’s wise-beyond-her-years junkie friend Vee. 

Philosophical drug addicts (think Bubbles in The Wire) are almost as much of a cliché as hookers with hearts of gold—or, for that matter, heroin-addled musicians. Like many representations of drug addiction, clean/through occasionally veers too far into the maudlin. “He’s very good at dying,” one character says melodramatically about Nick. “He’s been chasing it his whole life.” And that isn’t the only place where Johnson displays a bit of a tin ear. At one point, Nick’s friend Vee tells him “You are so white.” What sounds so white to me is putting such a hackneyed phrase in the mouth of a black character.

On the whole, however, the play—under the capable direction of Johnson’s partner and Catastrophic artistic director Jason Nodler—manages to rise above the limitations and stereotypes inherent to the drug addiction genre. Although the subject matter might seem depressing, even the darkest play can be enjoyable if it’s well-executed, and even the peppiest play can be depressing if it’s a theatrical failure. Let’s just say that I leftclean/through with a smile on my face.