Friday, September 5, 2003

Love and a light touch: What it takes to be your brother's keeper

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Looking out the window of the old Levinsky’s storefront during a rehearsal recently, actor Dave Bennett saw something. He called the others over, and they, too, had a startlingly relevant vision: "There’s a guy fixing up and shooting, in a picture window on Congress Street," said Michael Gorman.

The group has been using the vacant space to rehearse for the Maine tour of Gorman’s play UltraLight, an elegy for his brother, who died at 40 of a heroin overdose. Alone with his pencil and paper, Gorman had control in a way his real life never offered. "It’s about sanctuary of storytelling," he said. "I can say whatever I want."

At its 2000 New York debut, UltraLight found an unusual theater audience: "Recovering addicts started showing up," Gorman said. After the curtain, many of them would express gratitude for the respect and truth in the tale.

The play, whose subtitle is "A True Fishing Story," hooked cast members too. "Every night you’d have to go through a decompression process," said local musician/composer Joshua Eden.

Fishing metaphors abound in the play: lines of love and emotion become tangled in the tides of time. Ultralight fishing uses super-fragile equipment. Eden explains, the hook is lodged carefully in a fish’s mouth, like a needle in a vein, and the fisherman must work cautiously to reel it in.

The loving act of "catching something so you can release it," as Bennett puts it, is crucial to UltraLight, as is the behavior of a hooked fish. Stephen, the heroin-addicted character in the play, is caught by the carefully baited lure of his brother, Jim (played by Bennett).

Stephen (Oz Phillips) tells fish stories — tall tales making himself look good — in an attempt to wriggle out of Jim’s grasp. "Everybody associates lying with fishing stories," said Mike Kimball, who plays the supporting role of a salesman. "A lot of addicts are extremely adept at that."

Stephen ducks, hides, runs, does all the things fish do to avoid being drawn into the open. When Jim’s soul-fishing proves too skillful, though, Stephen enters the raging current and begins a fight for his life.

UltraLight shows the dexterity family members need to overcome denial and avoidance, telling the story of a brother unwilling to part with a segment of his own soul. "A lot of people get left behind that aren’t the addicts," Kimball said.

Touched with love, irony, even humor, UltraLight is a call to arms for families to help their addicts, in a nation whose drug policy criticizes them, marginalizes them, criminalizes them, and fails to extend a hand.

Maine’s jails and prisons are full of non-violent repeat drug offenders. Maine’s towns are riddled by prescription opiates stolen from patients who really need them. Heroin is cheaper and easier to find than marijuana.

And thousands are just waiting for a chance to get clean, said Marty O’Brien of the Maine Alliance for Addiction Recovery. In 2000, 75,000 Mainers tried to get into rehab programs, but there was only room for 15,000.

MAAR is helping sponsor the Maine tour, which runs throughout September, designated as National Recovery Month. "It’s very important to me ... that we convey a sense of hope," said Brian Glover, who is directing the show. "Recovery is real and not just another fishing story."

The play seeks action. "It’s not enough to say that there is a secret hidden in the American family," Glover said. Nor to say that there’s a "fog," as in Dickens’ Bleak House. "You can turn the fan on and blow the shit out," Glover said.

It takes a soft touch. "These are not people separate from us. When you wage a war on drugs you wage it on your own family. You wage it on your community," Gorman said. Many involved with the play know this firsthand, including Bennett: "I recently lost a friend to a heroin overdose. I just felt so helpless. This is about the only thing I can do for him."

Phillips’ role made him ask, "Why am I an actor? What does this do other than please me?" Now, his mission is clear: "Take a stand. Be socially responsible." Of particular importance, not just to the play, but to Phillips himself, is family.

"Maybe call up your brother and see how he’s doing," Phillips said. In fact, this play moved him to do just that. After two years of not talking to his brother, Phillips picked up the phone a couple of weeks ago. His brother is coming to see the play.

UltraLight is at Portland Stage Company, September 4, 5, and 6 at 8 p.m. and September 6 and 7 at 2 p.m. (207) 774-0465; Penobscot Theater, in Bangor, September 12 and 13 at 8 p.m., and September 14 at 2 p.m. (207) 942-3333; and the Grand Theater, in Ellsworth, September 18 at 2 p.m., and September 19 at 8 p.m. (866) 363-9500. Photos of recovering addicts will be on display, and each show will be followed by a group discussion.


• Local playwright Cathy Plourde will direct Lysistrata in its October run at Central Connecticut State University. Her adaptation is called Lysistrata: Everything Aristophanes Wanted To Know About Sex but Was Afraid To Ask, adding a new character who draws in the audience and turns the play on its head.