When it was announced that the world of addiction would be the focal point of the next play in Cornerstone Theater Company’s Hunger Cycle, head-scratching may have ensued, at least among those of us (guilty!) who have had precious little exposure to addiction. Do users and abusers fit, shoehorn free, into the cycle’s examination of “our relationship to the most elemental of needs – hunger”?
In Shishir Kurup’s “Bliss Point,” bet your bottom farthing it does.
The connection isn’t explicit or flogged (although company veteran Kurup makes a typically eloquent case in his program notes). The characters in this multi-faceted and often heartbreaking search for stability and inner peace have some serious stuff going on. Or their family members do. Somewhere in the second act, a character makes the point that but 5% of all people who go through a 12 Step program emerge successfully.
Not exactly an inspiring percentage, that. “Bliss Point” has 15 characters and an undercurrent of real hope in the face of some awful odds. Kurup is no Pollyanna. Some of the men and women we grow root for will not make it. Others will. Still others will simply disappear.
While past Cornerstone shows adapt established classical plays to fit contemporary and thematic parameters, “Bliss Point” is largely original. These characters are not men and women inspired by Brecht or Chekhov or Shakespeare; they’re just folks who are rattling around Los Angeles (except for one reference to Woodland Hills, this could probably be any big city), occasionally bumping up against each other.
“Bliss Point” takes us from the apartment building where young Seamus (played by Talmage A. Tidwell) and his friends hole up and go on benders to a rehabilitation center where Adelina (Page Leong) leads a group of three young women (Michelle Farivar, Melissa Ann Kestin and Tricia Nykin), to the house where freelance writer Jay (Sunkrish Bala) takes care of his mother Aya (KT Thangavelu), a former nurse now saddled with a ton of health problems of her own and clinically depressed to boot.
Jay is writing an article for “Rolling Stone” on addiction, and he’s staring down some writers block. Adelina lets him interview her group members, the most thoroughly written of whom is Summer (Kestin) whose unstable family drove her to a food addiction. Jay also spends time with Arif (JoDyRaY), a cross dressing entertainer who is frequently on and off the wagon, and who carries a gun.
Seamus, who also lives hard, has a notion to go out and find the father (David Bard) who disappeared years ago. Seamus’s running mate Billy (Jared Ross), an enabler as well as a good friend, is a well-educated and successful artist despite hair and piercings that make him look anything but. Seamus and fellow addict Lara (Amelia Yokel) are every bit in love despite an open relationship. Whether the two of them can make it together “without the sheen” becomes an issue as the play develops.
There is no substitute for dramatic authenticity, and another tenant of the Cornerstone mission is to use non professional members from the community being explored to help tell the story. Several of director Juliette Carrillo’s cast members have come to “Bliss Point” through the production’s community partners Beit T’Shuvah residential treatment center, the Hills Treatment Center and the United States Veterans’ Artists Alliance. The program bios identify which of these performers are first time actors and which have been through recovery. Many have likely drawn on their own experience in developing their characters, and Carrillo blends them expertly. “Bliss Point” often feels disturbingly real.
Performed at the Odyssey Theatre, the play suffers occasionally from claustrophobia when it moves to scenes outside of close quarter apartments or locked down rehab centers. Nephelie Andonyadis has crafted a functional single room with a single wall that sports a swirling paper mural design. The chairs and tables feel institutional and anybody coming through that single door could potentially be a threat. The evocation of wide open spaces is trickier, and the production might have benefitted had it been able to find a way to move even into the parking lot (Cornerstone shows have accomplished far trickier location hops).
Notwithstanding, the plight of these seekers, their families and observers are never less than moving. Thangavelu and Bala build a mother-son relationship where tension, regret, sadness and – above all – deep love are always on display. Aya may still occasionally treat Jay like a child, but the son, whose father deserted the family, is desperate to keep his mother alive. Tidwell, who spends a significant portion of the play looking like he’s been beaten with a crowbar, anchors Seamus’s scenes, which enjoy rather different dynamics whether his scene partner is Ross’s Billy or Yokel’s broken heiress, Lara.
Kestin and JoDyRaY offer two vastly different portraits of addicts, the former an embodiment of innocence, the latter a hardened, bitter (and quite humorous) individual who has been around the block several times.
Kurup’s tableau is, to some extent, a dreamscape. Certain encounters are clearly dreams while others might be, and there is a unifying twist waiting at the end. Kurup just came off directing a very different play also about addiction – the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Water by the Spoonful” which is the shining light of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. His own dramatic examination of addiction is no less affecting and those of us hungering for impactful drama should come away from “Bliss Point” feeling well fed.
“Bliss Point” continues 8 p.m. Wed.-Sat., 2 p.m. Sun. through Sunday at 2055 S Sepulveda Blvd. L.A. Tickets are pay-what-you-can with a suggested donation of $20. (310) 310-477-2055 EXT. 2, cornerstonetheater.org/blisspoint.