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HIGH: Tired Old Stereotypes Still In Play

I love a good night at the theatre. The  anticipation of the evening’s entertainment as we filter in to take our seats. The secret pleasure of people watching (just who are these people and what are they wearing!?)

There is nothing so exhilarating as an evening in the presence of great artists bringing great characters to life in a great play. THAT is the promise of a night at the theatre.And it all sounded so good on the phone…“Brian, you’ll love it” my media pal said “It’s a play about low life drug addicts. It’s right up your alley!”. Well, thanks… I think.  So off I went to see HIGH, the new Broadway play opening for a limited run at the Royal Alexander Theatre in Toronto.Turns out there were exactly two things to like about this play. The star, Kathleen Turner, who came to fame during the 1980s after blockbusters like Romancing the Stone and The War of the Roses. She was great! The second thing to like? The tickets were free. We might be living in a post-Intervention, post-Dr. Phil, post-Lindsey Lohan world. We might think that Rehab is the new “Hollywood Squares’ (a place where old movie stars go to revive their careers) but after an bewildering evening spent watching HIGH, turns out some of us, including playwright Mathew Lombardo, are still living in the 1950’s.
HIGH tells the story of  a hard boiled Addiction Counsellor Sister Jamison Connolly as she tries to reach out to a wayward young “meth” addict Cody. Kathleen Turner is perfectly cast as Sister Jamison. She swears frequently in a throaty, bourbon soaked voice that has become her calling card. Her performance as a Nun with an addiction history of her own has an emotional core that rings true – and is darkly humourous.  Cody, the young addict, is portrayed by new comer Evan Jonigkeit. Think of a Saturday Night Live Parody of Ashton Kutcher playing a slacker street kid and you’ve pretty much got the flavour of his unconvincing performance.

If you work in recovery, or even if you’ve watched a couple of episodes of Celebrity Rehab, you know that the real life journey of an addict from rock bottom to a full recovered human being is about as dramatic and compelling as life gets. Unfortunately for us, playwright Lombardo, himself in recovery, isn’t willing to do the hard work of telling the true story, the story with a hard won emotional truth at it’s core. Rather, he treats us to an over blown melodrama that plays right out of a 1950’s Home Economics howler on the dangers of dope and hoodlums.

Drug addict? Better make him a Rent Boy. Rent Boy? Better make his mother a prostitute! Prostitute? Hmm… better make him a killer of under aged gay club kids! It goes on and on. Even Sister Jamison doesn’t escape the twaddle, she’s saddled with a back-story straight out of a teenage Slasher movie involving more underage sex and murder.

If this play had been written as a comedy – or s satire – I might have loved it. But it wasn’t a satire, it was written and played straight – and that does audiences today a huge disservice.

I don’t believe that we require our addicts to be pimps, prostitutes and murderers any more. Today, thanks to Bellwood, Dr Phil and Celebrity Rehab, we all know that addiction is a non-discriminatory disease. It strikes doctors, lawyers, soccer Moms and yes, even street hustlers. To see a play about addiction and recovery in 2012, dressed up in tired old clichés and damaging stereotypes was insulting – and worse, a bore.

Give me play about real s addicts who hold down real jobs, like lawyers and soccer Moms, I’ll turn up. I’ll even pay for my tickets!
E. Brian JohnsonSpecial to Bellwood Social
Bellwood Health Services