Studio Theatre’s production of Duncan Macmillan’s People, Places & Things is immersive for audiences in the way that car accidents are jarring for passengers riding shotgun: no airbag.
In an instant, director David Muse launches theatergoers into the depths of addiction and the path toward recovery through the eyes of Emma (Kristen Bush), a headstrong actor living in a protracted state of dissociation. Staged in the new Victor Shargai Theatre, People, Places & Things is a turbocharged perfect storm of cast, director, stage designers, choreographers, lighting technicians, and a playwright all working at the height of their powers.
People, Places & Things meditates on loss, identity, and purpose as amplified by the alienating effects of addiction and modernity. To that end, Muse stages a one-woman hurricane. Patients Paul (David Manis), Mark (Jahi Kearse), Laura (Tessa Klein), Shaun (Derek Garza), Jodi (Lynnette R. Freeman), and T (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh) are detritus to Emma. Counselors, other recovering addicts, and abstractions of people that may or may not exist swirl around Emma from the moment she checks into rehab. Resentful of the process, Emma battles clinicians (Jeanne Paulsen and Nathan Whitmer) who encourage her to accept the things she cannot change and find the courage to change the things she can. Emma eschews the serenity prayer. It’s corny and rooted in a theistic worldview that is also beneath her. Macmillan did not write a sympathetic character.
Bush’s performance sucks the oxygen out of the theater as she writhes and erupts almost at random. The only thing more impressive than the range and depth of emotions Bush channels is her sheer stamina. The parasocial relationship Bush establishes with the audience is both uncomfortable and exhausting, and lands differently than when the play first debuted in 2015.
People, Places & Things opened at London’s National Theatre, back when the Sackler name still graced cultural institutions and registers of polite society across the world. The play does not focus on any one drug of choice, but it has aged into a world where audiences are increasingly conscious of the ravaging opioid epidemic. Studio’s 2022 production is all the more biting because American audiences in particular are likely a few degrees of separation, at most, from an opioid-related catastrophe or death.
On a meta level, People, Places & Things begs comparison to Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, a 1990s (gay) fantasia on national themes. Inside of a year, Denise Gough, who starred as Emma in the original production of People, Places & Things, debuted the show in New York and landed the role of the Valium-addicted Harper Pitt in the 2018 London revival of Kushner’s play. The casting choice—and award nominations that followed —is a resounding affirmation of Gough’s talent as an actress. It also speaks to the interplay between Angels’ answer to the epidemic of the day and Macmillan’s response to a 21st-century scourge. Both plays lean heavily on fantastical staging and dreamlike blocking to transport audiences into fantasia. The new Shargai Theatre space is equipped to facilitate exactly that.
Lighting designer Andrew Cissna, set designer Debra Booth, and choreographer Tony Thomas work the catwalk-like stage to their favor—the space is partitioned into two sections with risers facing each other. Actors crisscross the stage with torque, transforming the discotheque into a doctor’s office seamlessly and in seconds.
Studio has flexed its muscles in stride, positioning Bush to inhabit and thrive in a difficult role with stakes and a contemporary news peg.
People, Places & Things, written by Duncan Macmillan and directed by David Muse, runs through Dec. 11 at Studio Theatre. studiotheatre.org. $65–$95.