clean/through at Catastrophic Shows Addiction Without Compensating Benefits

February 17, 2014

Jim Tommaney
Houston Press
Mon, 02/17/2014

The setup:
The new play from Houston playwright/actor Miki Johnson, clean/through in a world premiere, illuminates the power of addiction, both to drugs and to relationships, as she focuses on the sobering effects on participants, on companions, and on family.

The execution:

The depiction of drug addiction is not a pretty sight, nor is it meant to be. It is graphic and brutal. And the depiction here is ruthless, unblinking, without the pretense that there are compensating benefits for the ravages the addict inflicts upon himself. The addict of course sees a benefit, but it is an end to pain, whether psychic or physical, or a euphoria that alters his reality. This is interior, not subject easily to dramatization.

The addict here is Nick (John DeLoach), a rock performer whom we meet just after a disappointing concert, performed under the influence of drugs, as he is criticized by his lover, Rachel (Jessica Janes) and his sister Annie (Elissa Levitt). Nick is largely inarticulate, throughout the play, so insights into his imagination are absent, except for a passage where he reports that, without drugs, he has no feelings. We sense, and see, his struggle with heroin addiction — but it is from the outside.

This production echoes some of the ground-breaking reality shown in The Living Theater’s production of The Connection in 1959, and of Joseph Chaikin’s Open Theater in the ’60s, which sought to involve its audience by breaking the fourth wall, but that is not the intent here. Instead playwright Johnson has chosen to present her truth, unvarnished and without blinking, as we become witnesses to her testimony. And a powerful presentation it is, gifted by moments of silence that speak volumes.

The production is brief — 60 minutes — but covers a huge amount of ground. We witness Nick’s abandonment of Rachel for a sojourn with the young heroin addict Vee (Candice D’Meza) in a tenement hovel with just a mattress on the floor. There is a moment of high melodrama as Rachel’s dependence on her relationship with Nick, now severed, drives her to extremes. And, as contrast to the seediness of Nick and Vee, we see the domestic happiness of Annie and her two young children, Sam (Electra Yanik) and Alex (Ginger Nunnally), a welcome assurance that there is a world beyond drugs.

The acting is gripping, and we come to care about the inhabitants of this world, self-destructive though they are. DeLoach is appropriately rail-thin, and his eloquent body language more than compensates for his scripted inarticulateness. Janes as Rachel finds and defines the tortured conflict between love and enabling, and Levitt as Annie opens a window into the world of sanity. D’Meza as Vee could not be better, and the children are admirable in their brief time on stage.

Jason Nodler’s direction is flawless, and his realistic approach to the verbal communications is spot-on correct, providing authenticity instead of mindless pace. He has created a world which unfortunately exists, widespread though far from universal, and provided a cautionary tale without moralizing. And has done so by making the repellent interesting, and despair intriguing.

The broad stage of The Catastrophic Theatre handles easily the multiple sets, well designed by Ryan McGettigan, and the props by Lauren Davis and Mark Romberg are detailed and intelligent. The lighting design by Alex Jainchill is thoughtful and appropriate. And the costume design by LA Cevenson blended in invisibly, as it should. The entire production, which contains smoking and fleeting nudity, is masterfully professional.

The verdict:

Strong acting and a powerful script create an authentic drama of addiction, presented unblinkingly in all its measured detail