Written by Chad Beckim
Directed by Shelley Butler
New York theatergoers are notoriously fortunate in that the smorgasbord of entertainment options features such a rich array of choices. But it’s also possible to get one’s fill of shows that strive to earn contemporary epithets like “game-changing”, “deconstructionist”, “immersive” and “non-narrative”. Once in a while, it’s good to be reminded of the fact the traditional family drama can speak to contemporary issues in a satisfying way. This is why, despite its depressing subject matter, Chad Beckim’s probing new exploration of the patterns of addiction is a joy to watch. Solidly written and skillfully played, NOTHING GOLD CAN STAY takes us inside an American small town where the prospects of a bright future, none too bright to begin with, are easily derailed by a worsening opioid epidemic.
Young Clay Taylor (Micheál Richardson) is at a crossroads. He can choose to hang around his rural hometown in Maine, where jobs are scarce and those that are available involve manual labor and scant wages. Or he can go away to college, gambling on the possibility of better days ahead. With the support of his down-to-Earth single mother Susan (Mary Bacon) Clay wisely chooses the latter. At first this working-class kid feels like fish out of water among his well-to-do peers, but Clay studies hard and, for a time, his future looks promising. Unfortunately, things aren’t going so well for Clay’s girlfriend Jess Cross (Talene Monahon). Neglected by her mom and harassed by her stepfather, she can no longer stand to live at home. Mary generously allows Jess to stay in Clay’s old room while he’s away at school. For a time, Jess gets along alright with Mary and her tough but likable daughter Tanya (Adrienne Rose Bengtsson). Soon, though, the Taylors begin to notice some odd behavior from their new housemate. Jess isn’t very sociable and some nights she staggers home looking like a zombie. Jess protests that she’s just tired from working too many shifts at the poultry plant, but Tanya and Mary aren’t buying it. They urge Clay to keep a closer eye on Jess, and when Clay comes home for Thanksgiving, his worst suspicions are confirmed. When the two go to a party, he sees Jess snorting oxy. He begs her to come with him to school, find a job near there and start a new life, but unfortunately his good intentions can’t fix the problem. Jess’s habit goes from bad to worse, and soon she is no longer welcome in the Taylor house. Her brother Jamie (Peter Mark Kendall) intervenes, hoping she’ll snap out of it long enough to reconcile with their cancer-suffering mother before it’s too late. Eventually Clay makes the foolhardy decision to put his academic career on hold and move back home to help Jess recover. If only it were that simple. Rehab offers a ladder out of the slough of addiction, but the rungs prove slippery. And those who try to lift her up run the risk of being dragged down instead. The Robert Frost poem from which the show derives its title makes poignant mention of the Garden of Eden, and indeed Jess is a kind of Eve figure, dangling drugs like a forbidden apple before Clay’s persuadable eyes. She’s too high to care that if he, too succumbs to temptation, their hopes will inevitably, to paraphrase Frost, sink to grief.
Director Shelley Butler uses Jason Simms’ three-quarter-round set design to great effect, never compromising the show’s seamless realism. Rather than have the actors self-consciously “cheat” to the audience, Butler allows them to keep their backs to sections of the audience for long stretches at a time. We genuinely experience the action like a fly on the wall, unaware of any artifice. Beckim’s script takes a straightforward approach, reflecting, but never caricaturing, the cadences of regional speech. Each character gets a turn to articulate his or her world view, often peppered with a resilient sense of humor. Yet the arias feel spontaneous, bubbling organically to the surface as the family negotiates each new calamity. The tragic and the redemptive are woven into the day-to-day, to the point where the opioid crisis, which is typically talked about in superficial soundbites on the evening news, takes on an all-too -human shape. We can’t help but feel that we know the Taylors and the Crosses, that what happens to them could be happening in the house next door. The actors, each aptly cast and uncompromisingly honest, stirringly embody the show’s real subject: the pained perseverance that, for most Americans, defines daily life.
NOTHING GOLD CAN STAY continues through October 26, 2019 at the Gural Theater 502 W 53rd St, New York, NY 10019. Tickets at partialcomfort.org.