This month Alex Hoffmann and Jessica L. Sosnoski debut Pure Enough to Drink—an original drama of addiction and redemption set in Milwaukee. Kerric Stephens is endearingly flawed as Alex— a successful businessman suffering from alcoholism which is mirrored in his son’s heroin addiction. Markaz Q. Davis is toweringly aggressive as his nihilistic, self-destructive son names Shay. Kellie Wambold cuts a very composed figure as Alex’s wife Judy. Wambold is the picture of exhausted poise trying desperately to keep it all together.
The drama plays out in percussive aggression. Anger thrashes out in restless shouting. The drama starts at a very high intensity and maintains without much more than an intermission for break. It can be kind of breathtaking at times.
The constant intensity of the tension causes characters tend to consist entirely of the substance of their conflicts. The audience doesn’t get much of a chance to see what might have held husband to wife to son. The characters ARE allowed some life outside all of the anger and shouting, but the aggression and frustration in the drama are overpowering.
Amidst the intensity there is a varied spectrum of aggression. Things get particularly physically brutal when Alex enters Huber. The brawl choreography amidst convicts feels remarkably brutal and authentic on such a small stage, but the emotional edge of the aggression feels every bit as powerful as Stephens and Wambold tangle through a complex emotional dynamic of husband and wife dealing with father and son in the grips of addiction.
The plot gains complexity as Alex deals with life in incarceration. Alex deals with oppression from a bully with clever sympathy. Things get complicated for Alex when a friendship with the fellow inmate leads to an offer to have the gang kill his son’s dealer. Alex’s pacifism is out to the test in a conflict that becomes a defining moment in the drama.
The drama spends a great deal of its time in Huber with the convicts. Some of the most interesting moments in the drama happen amidst a diverse group of prisoners. A boisterous game of Monopoly in prison is perhaps one of the single most memorable scenes in the entire drama as it feels incredibly natural with characters talking over each other in the cagey dynamics of a group of people forced to spend way too much time together.
The subtle and not-so-subtle aggression in prison forms some of the most intricate moments of the play. So much of the dialogue in the script fits the confrontational energy of the plot. The overall plot are being covered in the drama is not a clean and easy sweep from beginning to end. Reflecting life as it does, and the pacing is uneven and there aren’t any easy answers.
The script stops short of discussing greater problems with the US prison system and a country with the highest rate of incarceration as well as issues involving the political aspects of substance-abuse and prohibition of illicit drug use. All of the bigger political issues are safe we avoided in favor of working at the human element and its rawest emotional form. It’s a deeper gaze into the abyss of emotional complications of addiction and recovery from a deeply human angle. It’s ugly. it’s uneven. It’s every bit is ragged around the edges as the life it seeks to reflect.
The Company of Strangers’ Pure Enough to Drink runs through Feb. 9 at The Underground Collaborative on 161 W. Wisconsin Ave. For ticket reservations and more, visit The Company of Strangers online.