Catastrophic Theatre stages a stark and powerful ‘clean/through’

Everett Evans
Houston Chronicle
Tue, 02/11/2014

Miki Johnson’s “clean/through” is bleak, ugly and often painful to watch – and that’s probably the ultimate proof of its potency as a relentlessly honest portrait of drug addiction.

Starkly directed by Jason Nodler (link is external), Catastrophic Theatre (link is external)’s world premiere is no sanitized, nicely crafted dramatic exercise tip-toeing around the insoluble problem of addiction, with dashes of hope or humor at regular intervals to relieve the prevailing gloom.

No, “clean/through” is more like a stage equivalent of cinéma vérité: a series of unadorned scenes that seem to simply happen, spontaneously and inevitably, each playing out in real time. Some of the scenes involve many words, some involve few words, some none at all. The effect of this hourlong one-act is taut and disturbing. The primary impulse is to look away, try to distance one’s self, yet the doings have some of the same fascination as a grisly train wreck or 12-car pileup on the highway. Logical enough, since it’s clear that drug use has turned the life of rock musician protagonist Nick and his girlfriend, Rachel, into just that kind of grotesque disaster.

The first scene sets the tone, with Nick and Rachel just returned from a disastrous performance, which Nick bombed because he was obviously high. The two sullenly stew, or lash out at each other. He shoots up. She nags him to quit, go to rehab, get clean. Nick says he can’t feel, taste, enjoy anything anymore, not “clean.” He needs to be high all the time, or he’d rather not be at all. By the scene’s close, the frustrated Rachel uses, too.

In subsequent scenes, the heroin-crossed lovers mostly go their separate ways. Rachel struggles to get clean and stay that way. Nick mostly just stays strung out – seen writhing in a bath tub or crashing in a flop with a fellow addict, each shooting up again when sufficiently conscious to do so. Nick’s sister, Annie, appears in a few scenes, trying to counsel Nick and Rachel – clearly concerned, but also, just as clearly, a tad aloof. There are setbacks, suicide attempts, a crisis that finally incites Nick to some life-changing action. In its subdued way, the final scene implies a glimmer of hope – yet in keeping with the rest of the play, it doesn’t promise a lot.

Just as Johnson’s terse script and Nodler’s lean direction have a documentary feel, the intense, natural performances, especially of the two leads, seem a matter not of acting but simply being.

John DeLoach (link is external) is scarily real as Nick – gaunt, desperate and lost. Jessica Janes (link is external) invests Rachel with a terrified determination, offset by bewilderment and vulnerability.

Candice D’Meza (link is external) gives a tough, unsentimental reading of Vee, Nick’s roommate. As Annie, Elissa Levitt (link is external) combines sympathy with dry detachment, perhaps suggesting the weariness of trying to help in hopeless situations.

Ryan McGettigan (link is external)’s setting, showing all the locales simultaneously, Alex Jainchill’s moody lighting, L.A. Clevenson’s costumes and Chris Bakos (link is external)’ sound design all contribute to the stark reality of the play’s situations.

The key strength of “clean/through” is that it does what it sets out to do so uncompromisingly.