Thursday, April 19, 2018

Play a Day: How To Be a Respectable Junkie

How To Be a Respectable Junkie
(Dobama Theatre)
Last summer, local playwright Greg Vovos made a national splash when the New York Times wrote a piece on how the theater community in Ohio was reflecting the opioid crisis on stage. His new play, How To Be a Respectable Junkie premiered at Dobama Theatre last June, receiving The Plain Dealer called it, "raw, eloquent and moving."

A monodrama performed by Chris Bohan, a professor at CWRU and an old friend, Vovos based the piece on interviews with a man struggling with heroin addiction. "Before you solve a problem," Vovos told the Times, "you have to wrap your mind around it."

Tonight my wife and I caught the show at a one night only performance at the Parma-Snow Branch of the Cuyahoga Public Library. They have a four hundred seat auditorium and they filled the place. It is clear there is great interest in the subject, and in this performance.

One of my mentors said theater is a shallow education in everything. The "undergrad" show my fourth year was Lanford Wilson's Balm In Gilead. As part of our preparation we visited a halfway house and I was made aware of the use and effects of heroin.

The character I was playing was Dopey, who is addicted to heroin. If you are unfamiliar with Balm In Gilead, it's not easy to read. It takes place in and around a twenty-four hour diner around the year 1960. All the conversations overlap so you have to pay attention to exactly who is speaking to whom and what is happening.

Balm In Gilead
(Ohio University)
Dopey enters from outside and sits at the counter. He orders a coffee. The server says he's just going to fall asleep and Dopey is mildly belligerent. He doesn't say another thing for four pages, then suddenly he has "awakened" and announces he has to get outside. He is asked to pay for his coffee but departs with urgency.

Two pages later, he delivers a two-page monologue.

The details are not in the stage directions or anywhere else in the script. But what I had learned about heroin filled in the details. He'd shot up outside before entering the scene. In an effort to stay awake, he'd ordered coffee, and promptly fell asleep. Waking up, he needed to vomit. After that, he would feel more or less normal for a while, until the urge to take more of the drug. Trust the playwright.

Solo performances can be a tricky thing, I speak from experience. You are alone on stage, so who are you speaking to? And why? The audience? Yourself? Vovos has the character of Brian creating an improvised "how to" video and this suits the material very well, providing context and structure. It is memoir, lecture, and dramatic interpretation of the living nightmare that is addiction. The lies, the crimes, the pain. There's a lot going on here in 80 minutes.

Bohan is an ideal partner in this work, a guy I know to have boundless compassion who is also a brilliant performer, intelligent and with impeccable comic timing. It's an outstanding performance, at once urgent and laid back. It's also an important education tool.

And they're taking it on tour! For better or for worse, I can't imagine there is a better time in history for a piece like this, check it out if you can.

Join the "How To Be a Respectable Junkie" Facebook page for information on future performances.


  1. David, thank you for taking the time not only to see the play but to write this thoughtful piece about your experience with the play, and your acting and the research you did to perform in Lanford Wilson's piece. I would have loved to have seen that. I'm really grateful that you are sharing your thoughts with the wider world and helping us get our word out. Thank you again! Greg

    1. Thanks, man! My pleasure. Best wishes for the tour!