At The Merrimack Repertory Theatre, Lowell Through January 31st
Directed by Sheryl Kaller
Reviewed by Bobby Franklin
“The White Chip” now playing at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell is an important work. Written by Sean Daniels, MRT’s Artistic Director, it is a no holds barred look at Sean’s painful struggle with addiction. In it he tells the story of how he practically ruined his life, his relationships, and his health because of the hold alcohol had on him. In the play the audience witnesses Sean’s tragic life as we see the disease progress and tear him apart, and while we are watching this tale of self destruction we are many times laughing to the point of tears. I know, it sounds a bit strange.
The cast is led by Jeffrey Binder as Sean who is superb in a role that takes incredible emotional stamina. Within minutes he has formed a bond with the audience who now become immersed in his life story. Mr. Binder is fluid on the stage and his face takes on the years of abuse as the play and his alcoholism progresses. This is not done with makeup.
Benjamin Evett and Isabel Keating are listed in the program as Actor #1 and Actor #2 as they play multiple roles and slip in and out of their various characters without missing a beat. Having seen Mr. Evett perform many times before, I was not surprised at this as he is one of the areas top actors. This was my introduction to Ms Keating and to say I was impressed would be an understatement. It wonderful to watch such talented actors switch from character to character at the drop of a hat.
The title refers to the white chip, or token, that is given to people when they first attend a Twelve Step Program. It is in recognition of their taking the first step towards recovery. Unfortunately, Sean has amassed a large amount of these chips over the years as he has relapsed time and time again, with each new round of drinking dragging him further and further down towards that black hole. Along the way he learns better and better ways to hide his drinking from others, how to lie to himself, and how to avoid responsibilities, but eventually his life starts to completely unravel. Much will be familiar to those who have or know someone who has dealt with this awful disease.
Okay, so you must be wondering why I said this is a funny play. It sounds pretty dreadful, and it is. The great thing about “The White Chip” is how Daniels has filled it with so much laughter. There are jokes about his Mormon upbringing, his embarrassing escapades while on a bender, his relationship with his mother, who also is an alcoholic, and his meeting with the Jews where he is finally able to make some sense of things. Who would have thought such a thing?. There is wonderful banter among all the characters as they move about the stage engaged in quick-witted exchanges. There are projections onto two screens with cartoon like characterizations of the embarrassing escapades Sean has embarked on while drunk as well as graphics listing the pros and cons of his behavior. Mr. Evett is particularly impressive when he plays Sean’s father who is diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Many of these scenes are heartbreaking and touching.
And that is what is so wonderful about it. By allowing his audience the release through the comedy Mr. Daniels is able to tell his story of just how terrible his struggle has been, and of how so many people are dealing with the same battle. It is a battle to overcome the shame and ask for help. It is not only a play for those who have or are struggling with addiction, but a story that should be seen by all people so they will begin to realize the stigma associated with addiction is cruel and uncalled for. The way to help people is to allow them to step away from the shame and know they will be able to reach out for help without being branded as weak and lacking in character.
In the program notes Sean Daniels expresses something that has to be a first for an artist. About “The White Chip” he writes “And I do hope that no one produces it in ten years because it feels incredibly outdated-because we have no more silent deaths.” As much as I enjoyed this play and urge people to see it, I have to agree with him.
“The White Chip” playing at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre, Lowell, MA through January 31st . Box Office: 978.654.4678
Photo Credit: Merrimack Repertory Theatre