I’m on the verge of a meth education overdose. You can’t turn on a television, turn a street corner, watch a movie, pick up a newspaper or, now, enter a theater without some alarming message about the drug. Not even once can you do any of those things—and that’s a perfectly good line ruined, worn out, repeatedly plucked as a punch line like the blood-stained eyebrows of an addict.
Don’t get me wrong, meth’s bad juice. I’m not suggesting Tom Siebel and his deep-pocketed army of do-gooding fear mongers would do better to ignore it. But this week alone, in addition to the steady crackle of the pipe at the end of Siebel’s Montana Meth Project commercials (if I see that girl one more time start pulling her hair out in the shower while Gollum watches her, I’ll scream louder than she does), Missoula will host the world premiere of HBO’s disturbing documentary Montana Meth, a joint project between the cable channel and the Montana Meth Project (see this week’s cover story), and the local premiere of Montana Rep Missoula’s Good Thing, a play largely about a young pregnant girls’s losing battle with meth addiction, and a project Siebel’s people were invited to support but declined. The documentary features kids sticking needles in their necks on camera, while the play features a subtler type of shock that unfolds with the story. The documentary shows a father and son shooting up together, while the play shows a family trying in vain to keep each other clean. Together, it’s not exactly a feel-good double feature. It is, though, an interesting contrast in how to approach the meth issue.
In Good Thing, the drug abuse becomes almost an afterthought by virtue of being less sensational, less ghastly, less over-the-top than its current media counterparts. It’s actually funny in parts (a tricky aspect we’ll get to in a moment), and the shooting up is often unseen. This treatment makes Good Thing less a lecture than a study, less about a drug than about struggling people, less about fear than hope. It proves that less is more by simply being what it is—a story.
In other words, Good Thing feels more real, more accessible. In upstate New York, an aging schoolteacher (Teresa Waldorf) and her guidance counselor husband (Chris Torma) find themselves in a perpetual passive-aggressive argument. He had an affair with a student that she can’t forget, and they can’t have children, leaving the relationship unable to “progress.” They fight while shopping for sneakers and making eggs. At the same time, their former students, now in their early 20s, are playing house and failing miserably. Mary (Nicki Poer) is eight months pregnant and locked in her room to keep away from meth, a habit she hasn’t been able to kick despite her impending motherhood. Her gatekeeper is her brother-in-law, Bobby (Justin Fell), a hardcore addict with a habit of passing out on the kitchen floor. Mary’s husband and Bobby’s brother, Dean (Grant Olson), is the only quasi-together person in the house, but he’s out working 40 hours a week building houses, watching his youth and promise (he scored 1370 on his SATs) slip away. When Dean comes home he has barely enough energy to crack open a beer. Both these glass houses start to crack with the arrival of Liz (Kelly Long Olson), Dean’s ex and the guidance counselor’s prize pupil, who’s recently dropped out of college.
What’s refreshing about Jessica Goldberg’s script is that meth is just one piece of Good Thing’s larger context of need. While the audience is distracted by the challenges facing each character—the older couple’s search for balance, Dean’s resistance to adulthood, Liz’s need for direction and love—the meth issue slowly eats away at the core. By the end, it’s far from clear what actual “good thing” could possibly satisfy these characters. That sort of cluttered honesty, more than any scare tactic, leaves a lasting impression.
The aforementioned humor is a troubling riddle, however. While the acting is fine—standouts being the previously unknown Olson as a seething Barry Pepper-like Dean, and Poer’s tricky sympathetic/completely nuts balancing act with Mary—the performances, partly because of the subject matter, mostly come across as monotonously depressing, punctuated with blips of hysteria. So when the play’s biggest meth head, Fell’s Bobby, acts the part of the village idiot amid so much misery, it’s funny. He repeatedly gets laughs for tangential one-liners and an apologetically hyper physicality brought on by the drug. It’s tough to be critical, because Fell is a welcome respite for the audience, but he’s also perhaps the least hopeful character in the play; he’s the guy who should be stabbing the needle in his neck. I can’t imagine that the intent was to have him play the jester, and ultimately I’m not sure what sort of message the character sends.
But perhaps a level of ambiguity is the point. It’s not about seeing any of these characters become scab-riddled zombies and start whoring themselves in graffiti-filled bathroom stalls (which reminds me, there’s brief nudity and not-so-brief cursing in the play). Goldberg doesn’t make it that easy. The Missoula Colony playwright makes it harder by creating a shadow of fear that hovers over the play, without ever coming in for an explicitly tragic landing. And that hovering imminence is infinitely more jolting than any commercial.
Good Thing continues at the Crystal Theatre through Saturday, Feb. 18, at 8 PM. $10 Thursday/$15 Friday and Saturday.