jakub | March 5, 2024

AMERICAN THEATRE | How ‘Days of Wine’ and ‘White Chip’ Stage Alcoholism and Recovery

Joe Tapper in “The White Chip” Off-Broadway (photo by Matthew Murphy); Kelli O'Hara and Brian D'Arcy James in “Days of Wine and Roses” at Studio 54 on Broadway (photo by Ahron R. Foster)

Pop culture is saturated with stories of addiction and recovery. From the reality television docuseries Intervention to gossip columns on the latest celebrity rehab stint, addiction has an enmeshed relationship with entertainment. 

But a greater awareness of substance abuse doesn’t guarantee respectful storytelling. Media around addiction focuses almost entirely on the crash, intricately detailing a person’s problematic use in gratuitous abundance. Against the backdrop of skyrocketing overdose rates and the raging opioid crisis, creators across various mediums have tried to elevate the narrative away from its salacious origins. 

Onstage, two recent shows—Days of Wine and Roses, running on Broadway through April 28, and The White Chip, running Off-Broadway through March 9—both attempt to dissect the anatomy of addiction, and both are by artists who have experience with addiction. Both productions have the potential to push forward the framework of recovery stories, and to refuse familiar clichés that focus on illness in favor of expanding and deepening our universal understanding of substance abuse. But do they?

Days of Wine and Roses, playing at Studio 54, follows Joe (Brian d’Arcy James) and Kirsten (Kelli O’Hara), a couple caught in the throes of alcoholism. Basing their show on the teleplay and film of the same title, composer Adam Guettel and book writer Craig Lucas (both in recovery) have reimagined the couple’s drunken collapse as a stage musical. “Two people stranded at sea/Two people stranded are we” is a repeated refrain, which, paired with an airy melody, provides the exact dissonance needed to convey the cliff Joe and Kirsten are standing over. It is catchy yet haunting, a perfect gut punch that captures the essence of how isolating alcoholism in a relationship can be.

Still, the musical leaves larger questions lingering. Days of Wine and Roses is dedicated almost entirely to depicting the couple’s substance abuse. There’s the infinite handles of brown liquor that the couple shares, the lost work, the countless acts of child endangerment, the burned-down family home after Kirsten’s blackout. But little information is given about Joe and Kirsten as individuals, or as a partnership, outside their relationship to alcohol.

Addiction is more than inebriation. The disease, and how it manifests for those afflicted, isn’t a static experience.

What attracts Joe and Kirsten to each other in the first place? Why would Kirsten, someone who has largely abstained from alcohol, suddenly be swept into the bottle? Have they created other rituals in the quest for an escape? Above all, what are they escaping from?

The gap in explanation is partially due to the lack of information we get in Days of Wine and Roses. Songs about Kirsten’s studiousness and knowledge of the Atlantic Cable are missing the needed insight into her as a character. Another song—Underdeath, sung by Kirsten to her child—-feels like a generic cry for help, with the lyrics: “It’s underdeath/Of course, my girl/Your mommy goes there everyday.” What is underdeath for Kirsten? What is she warning her daughter about? Joe is given even less ground to deepen his character; a scant line is thrown in about his military service. 

The musical’s score dedicates more time to the couple’s spiral versus giving insight into how or why they’re in it. It seems to suggest that substance abuse is accidental and uniform, a common cold rather than a detailed defense mechanism. 

Seeing depictions of “rock bottom,” the lowest point in active addiction, can be useful. Theatre, with its engine of empathy and laser on character, allows us as audiences to bear witness to suffering and understand those who society relegates as unworthy. But addiction is more than inebriation. The disease, and how it manifests for those afflicted, isn’t a static experience. Besides, context generates complexity, challenging audiences to consider substance abuse and recovery in a different capacity. 

In Tracy Letts’s August: Osage County, for example, we see the inheritance of addiction among families, and are forced to navigate our disdain and sympathy for characters like the family’s matriarch, Violet. People, Places, and Things, written by Duncan Macmillan, examines how Emma, an actor struggling with substance abuse, uses her various roles and addiction to create distance from the real world. Allowing complicated inner lives to live alongside stories of addiction is what drives empathetic, dramatic and difficult storytelling, not just displays of suffering.

Crystal Dickinson, Joe Tapper, and Jason Tam in “The White Chip.” (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

Meanwhile, The White Chip, an autobiographical play written by Sean Daniels, attempts to provide insight into alcoholism using theoretical devices like personified thoughts (played by Crystal Dickinson and Jason Tam) and heaps on plenty of humor. Daniels, who has worked as an artistic leader at several theatres, from Actors’ Theatre of Louisville to Arizona Theatre Company, struggled with drinking until he turned himself around some years ago; he now leads the Recovery Project through Florida Studio Theatre. The White Chip traces the way he navigated his alcoholism alongside his artistry.   

The play follows Steven (a charismatic Joe Tapper), a theatre director and ex-Mormon whose first drink came at age 12. From college in Florida to pursuing theatre in Kentucky (the birthplace of bourbon in the U.S.), Steven develops an intense dependency, resulting in hospital visits, a DUI, and dismissal from his job. 

The White Chip, its title based on the starting chip in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, cleverly uses absurdity to frame the nature of Steven’s addiction. In one scene, a battered and bruised Steven, who has just received a DUI, must judge a children’s theatre competition. The juxtaposition of Steven’s drinking (and its consequences) alongside the everyday do more to show the incisiveness of the illness than vague gestures of “rock bottom.”

Tam and Dickinson, who play a variety of characters within Steven’s decline (friends, his mother, intrusive thoughts), provide additional shading that feels specific and necessary to fill the blanks in who Steven is. 

But while Days of Wine and Roses is predictable in the way it depicts active addiction, White Chip stumbles in its tidiness around the moment of recovery. Daniels’s writing excels when it captures the Kafkaesque nature of achieving sobriety. The Sisyphean journey of abstinence—receiving a white chip, gaining days, only to relapse and start over—feels devastating, mired in the stress and shame of a continual confession. But instead of interrogating the logic of the 12-step program, Steven accepts the inevitability of the system, only giving a sideways critique of its religious elements. By the end of The White Chip, he concludes that he initially struggle with sobriety because of 12-step’s shunning of science in favor of religious elements like a “higher power.”

It’s a missed opportunity to further problematize systems of recovery that have widely been taken for granted. There are infinite ways to get granular and incisive with 12-step, a system of recovery that has started to receive more critique. One approach is the way the musical Next to Normal critiques the psychiatric industry and the pathologizing of human grief and emotion. The White Chip cedes fertile ground when it refuses to do the same, since Alternatives to Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs have grown increasingly popular over the years.

The core issue with these productions’ attempts at unraveling substance abuse and recovery is the inherent banality of the subject. Of course, there is a level of monotony in addiction; the paint-by-number quality of the disease underlines its tragedy, and the path through and out of substance use can have an identical quality. But between them The White Chip and Days of Wine and Roses create an almost interchangeable interpretation of addiction, either training a microscope on “rock bottom” or refusing to look at the broader context of how addiction and recovery are understood. 

In both shows, addiction is staunchly the enemy. Compared against common perceptions of substance abuse, this is a welcome acknowledgement that addiction is  an illness, not a personality flaw. But it is people’s complexity that can give way to substance abuse, and greater complexity and texture should be within reach when storytellers approach this subject.

Gloria Oladipo is a playwright and critic based in New York (but proudly hails from Chicago). She has been featured in The Guardian, Teen Vogue, Bitch media, and other outlets. She is the 2023 winner of the Edward Medina Prize for Excellence in Cultural Criticism.

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