BWW Review: Merrimack Repertory Theatre Stages World Premiere of THE WHITE CHIP
The White Chip
Written by Sean Daniels, Directed by Sheryl Kaller; Scenic & Lighting Designer, Justin Townsend; Costume Designer, China Lee; Sound Designer, Leon Rothenberg; Projection Designer, Aaron Rhyne; Illustrator, Julie Felise Dubiner; Producer, Emily Ruddock; Stage Manager, Casey L. Hagwood
Performances through January 31 at Merrimack Repertory Theatre, 50 East Merrimack Street, Lowell, MA; Box Office 978-654-4678 or www.mrt.org
Imagine being the new guy in town and immediately telling everybody the worst things about your past. You let your boss know how unreliable you have been on previous jobs. You admit that you were unfaithful in your marriage, that you disappointed your parents, and perhaps worst of all, that you weren't there for your father when he was being overtaken by a debilitating illness. That's what Sean Daniels, Artistic Director at Merrimack Repertory Theatre, is doing with the world premiere of his play The White Chip. He unabashedly throws open his closet door and shines a spotlight on the skeleton within - namely his alcohol addiction - and shares his personal story in the hope that telling it will help someone else going through the same thing. And, by the way, it's a comedy.
After his own experiences in trying to get sober, Daniels lamented the absence of any literature or resources with a sense of humor and set about to remedy the situation. The non-traditional format of The White Chip eschews the fourth wall and, with its conversational style, makes the audience an integral player in the narrative. If we're not there to hear his story, is he really baring his soul (if a tree falls in the forest, etc.)? In recovering from addiction, in order to stay clean, it is vital to come clean, as it were, and this play is an important cog in Daniels' recovery machine. True to his mission, the writing is light and infused with humor, especially when he points at his foibles and illustrates his repeated failed attempts at sobriety and AA. In one scene, Daniels (played by Jeffrey Binder) attends his first meeting and receives the white chip, signifying that one has completed 24 hours without a drink or has expressed the desire to get sober. The leader (Benjamin Evett) presents the chip and applauds. The same scene gets played out over and over and over as Daniels relapses and returns to try again. Finally, there is a scene where Evett dispenses the chips as if he were a vending machine, one after another, creating a visual that is at once humorous and poignant.
Binder is a charming docent for the journey through the ups and downs of Daniels' life. He is the innocent teen sneaking beer at a high school friend's home, the doubter at Mormon summer camp, the hard partying college boy, and the theater wunderkind with his own company at the age of twenty-two. His ever-increasing use of alcohol gives him confidence, but creates problems in his relationships and in the work place. Binder has a knack for showing both sides of the same coin simultaneously and letting us see the wheels spinning in his brain as Daniels tries to have it all. He works hard and plays harder, and justifies his drinking because he is stressed, yet successful. As he suffers losses in his life, he gradually decompensates and Binder conveys the sadness, anger, and fear that he experiences, finally going to rehab at his mother's behest. Binder authentically portrays the stages Daniels goes through while in treatment, none so moving as when he turns to prayer out of desperation.
In supporting roles (labeled Actor#1 and Actor#2), Evett and Isabel Keating play a wide range of characters, from Daniels' parents, to his wife and girlfriends, school buddies, employers, and people he encounters in the recovery community. They get a little help from costume designer China Lee, but most of the differentiation is dependent upon their skills to change tone of voice, posture, and excitability level. Evett does a nice job of portraying the father as his Parkinson's disease symptoms worsen, as well as a no-nonsense counselor at the Florida rehab center, and Keating captures the distinct personalities of Daniels' wife and his mother. There are moments of pathos in some of their parental scenes with Binder, but Evett and Keating also have their comic turns, and they communicate the down-to-earth, easygoing nature of the Jews who help Daniels to achieve his "aha" moment.
Director Sheryl Kaller's staging keeps things moving at a quick pace, with projected illustrations interspersed with the live action. The design team includes Justin Townsend (scenic/lighting), Leon Rothenberg (sound), Aaron Rhyne (projection), and illustrator Julie Felise Dubiner. Kaller effectively balances the darkness looming under the story with the funny, light format that Daniels employs to make the play accessible and entertaining. Addiction is a serious subject, but approaching it from a different direction shows that it does not have to be depressing or hopeless. In his own continuing story, Daniels got married last June and clocked four years of sobriety in October, 2015. Judging by the support he has received from MRT, his career seems to be back on track. As his character tells us in the play, you can have it all back as long as you follow rule #1: Don't drink.