News Ticker

People, Places & Things

Like the play that barely contains her, Denise Gough’s performance keeps you riveted at every turn, as her character is on a continuous roller-coaster ride.

Denise Gough in a scene from “People, Places & Things” (Photo credit: Teddy Wolff)

David Kaufman

David Kaufman, Critic

The hype that surrounds an award-winning performance on one side of the Atlantic can often preclude its impact if and when it arrives on the other side. This is not the case, I’m happy to report, with the overwhelmingly powerful performance of Denise Gough who deservedly won the Olivier Award as Emma in People, Places & Things, a new play by Duncan MacMillan, which premiered in London in 2015, and is now enjoying its American premiere at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn.

Like the play that barely contains her, Gough’s performance keeps you riveted at every turn, even as her character is practically on a continuous roller-coaster ride–a ride which she takes us on with her, as she plays out her tenacious addiction to drugs and alcohol.

From the opening moments, the writing, the performance, and the staging all conspire to put us in her frame-of-mind and keep us there, which only adds to the devastating impact of the pathetic ending. At first, there are loud noises and darkness and what the script describes as “chaos.” When the lights come up we’re seeing Emma, an actress, in a scene from Chekhov’s The Seagull. But she’s clearly disoriented and even slurs her lines as well as her actions, before saying, “I’m so tired. I need to sleep. I’m a seagull. No, that’s not right. I’m an actress,” which apparently are not Chekhovian lines.

Denise Gough in a scene from “People, Places & Things” (Photo credit: Teddy Wolff)

The title, People, Places and Things, refers to the three things to be avoided by “users” when they’re released from rehab, as Emma, whose real name is Sara, learns, since they’re “triggers,” that frequently prompt addicts to start using again. But when you think about it, how can you avoid “people, places and things” and get on with your life? That may be why so many people in rehab return to rehab even after they become “clean” during the first or second or third session there, as most of the other characters in People, Places & Things do–including Emma.

Even though it’s Emma herself who decides to go into rehab, like most addicts, she’s basically in denial, claiming, “I just need to get a tune up.” But as groggy as she was during the opening scene of The Seagull, nothing can prepare her–or us–for the torture and torment of withdrawal, as the white-tile walls of the set (handsomely designed by Bunny Christie) begin to melt, and Emma is abruptly joined on stage by five other selves, in various states of writhing, vomiting, shaking, and just breaking down. This particular effect of the staging really shows off the excellent direction of the play by Jeremy Herrin: as much as anything else, it really puts us in Emma’s world, which is where we remain until the bitter end.

Denise Gough and cast in a scene from “People, Places & Things” (Photo credit: Teddy Wolff)

With cacophony and pitch-black darkness signaling the scene changes, most of the play depicts group therapy sessions in rehab for Emma, who is reluctant to participate, at first. But it’s those therapy sessions that help us get to know the eight other characters, including the marvelous Barbara Marten as Emma’s doctor, therapist–and also as her mother, in the final, tragic close to the play–and an effective Alistair Cope as fellow-rehab inmate Foster who later becomes an attendant, and later still,  Cope appears as Emma’s father.

The other outstanding players include Jacob James Beswick, Jacqui Dubois, Charlotte Gascoyne, Kevin McMonagle, Laura Woodward, Nathaniel Martello-White, and Himesh Patel.  And then there are the outstanding contributions of costume designer Christina Cunningham, lighting designer James Farncombe, and sound designer Tom Gibbons.

People, Places & Things (through December 3, 2017)

St. Ann’s Warehouse, 45 Water Street, in Dumbo, Brooklyn

For tickets, 718-254-8779 or visit http://www.stannswarehouse.org

Running time: two and a half hours including one intermission

David Kaufman
About David Kaufman (44 Articles)
David Kaufman has been covering the theater in New York since 1981. A former theater critic for the New York Daily News, he was also a long-time contributor to the Nation, Vanity Fair, the Village Voice and the New York Times. He is also the author of the award-winning Ridiculous! The Theatrical Life and Times of Charles Ludlam, the best-selling Doris Day: The Untold Story of the Girl Next Door, and his most recent biography, Some Enchanted Evenings: The Glittering Life and Times of Mary Martin.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.