A St. Louis theater troupe is using a play that highlights drug addiction in the mid-1950s to combat the opioid crisis of today.
This weekend, the Slaying Dragons company will present “A Hatful of Rain” at The Chapel theater. The play, about a Korean War veteran addicted to morphine, examines secrecy, shame and family dynamics.
The production draws on moments from everyday life to show that no family is safe from addiction, director Brad Slavik said in an interview.
“These are very ordinary people. These aren't anybody special; they weren't born criminals,” Slavik said. “The person that's addicted is a veteran; he's a combat veteran. He was a prisoner of war and survived torture.”
‘That person who sticks with you’
Playwright Michael V. Gazzo’s “A Hatful of Rain” was first performed in St. Louis in 1956. A year later, it went from stage to screen, becoming an Oscar-nominated movie.
Its main character, Johnny Polo, is a war hero. He and his wife, Celia, will soon welcome a child. He's the favorite of his father’s two sons, but his dad doesn’t know that Johnny has come home from Korea addicted to the morphine doctors gave him to ease the pain of his injuries.
Only his brother, Polo, who lives with Johnny and Celia in their New York City apartment, knows the whole story. Polo covers for Johnny, hoping that someday, somehow his family will reward his loyalty, said LaVell Thompson, who plays Polo.
“He’s got the love-hate relationship with his brother and he desperately wants to receive affection and approval from his father,” Thompson said. “He never gets it but he's always trying.”
Johnny has spent thousands of dollars on drugs that Polo owes their unsuspecting father. Johnny’s bumbling drug dealers, who are high most of the time and lend a comedic touch to the play, finally get arrested. That cuts off Johnny’s supply, and he goes into withdrawal.
Tiring of her husband’s unreliability, Celia threatens to leave. Johnny finally tells her what’s going on. That admission is an important step, said Patience Davis, who plays Celia.
“When she knows the name of the problem then she starts asking around: ‘OK, what are the resources what can be done?’” Davis said. “But before she knew what the problem was, she was a whirlwind and everything was confusion, and she couldn't really be a help to the family because she was confused.”
“Celia is the hero of the play,” said actor Michael McClelland, who plays Johnny. McClelland said that friends who’ve struggled with the same problems as his character all had a “Celia” in their lives.
“It’s that person who sticks with you no matter what, the person who cleans you up when you're a mess, the person who asks the questions that make you feel horrible,” McClelland said. “But the conversation must be had.”
‘It has to come from within’
Family and social support is critical, said Dr. Naazia Azhar, a psychiatrist who counsels St. Louis veterans. But from the Johnnys of the 1950s to every person who struggles with opioid abuse today, the path toward recovery is also an intensely personal journey.
“No one can decide if someone is motivated and ready,” said Azhar, who will participate in a panel discussion after the play. “It has to come from within.”
Typically, there’s no Hollywood ending. In real life, recovery can be a series of ups and downs.
“It's usually not like, ‘Oh, I come into treatment and now I'm clean my whole life,’” Azhar said. “It’s a relapsing, remitting disease, so, often there are several attempts at treatment — and that's part of the process.”
The mission of Slaying Dragons is to destigmatize conditions that affect the brain, including mental illness, Alzheimer's and addiction. Helene Meyer, who founded the company in 2011, told St. Louis Public Radio in May that the plays and post-performance discussions can provide a context and forum for people who need to talk.
“It’s a safe environment in which to bring up something,” Meyer said. “I’ve heard people say many times, ‘I’ve never talked about this before.’”
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