Adam Bock has a knack for revealing the extraordinary dimensions of ordinary lives. That quality distinguished A Life, his moving exploration of gay male loneliness, and A Small Fire, about the swift ravages of a mysterious illness, both seen in recent seasons at Playwrights Horizons. And it’s evident once again in the world premiere of Before the Meeting at Williamstown Theatre Festival.
As the title suggests, Bock takes up addiction and its aftermath as his subject. There is an inherently dramatic element to recovery culture—to an outside observer, and perhaps even to a participant, an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting can seem like a theatrical event, with its narrative orations and its well-established customs. But Bock largely avoids grandstanding, either in his scenes or with his characters; the action takes place peripherally, and focuses instead on the minor details that form the majority of life. In doing so, he shows how people hold on to themselves and to their hard-earned relationships—or how they don’t.
A meeting, like a play, is a controlled ecosystem, and both contain familiar types. Before the Meeting introduces us to Gail (Deirdre O’Connell), the de facto leader, justly proud of her seventeen years of sobriety. She serves as mother hen to Nicole (Midori Francis) and Tim (Kyle Beltran), both brought into the fold more recently, and manages the temperaments of Ron (Arnie Burton), a longtime participant with a litany of opinions. Gail doesn’t shy away from owning up to her troubled past—her fearless moral inventory, in meeting-speak—and the audience can sense that her caring but controlling attitude masks a wellspring of deep-seated pain.
Bock develops characters and relationships gradually and methodically. We learn that Nicole, who is pregnant, is still involved with an active alcoholic. Tim always seems on the edge of a relapse. Ron’s brashness and bossiness may be a manifestation of self-preservation after years in the grip of chemical dependence. Even in scenes with little rising tension—making coffee the correct way, arguing about whether to arrange chairs in a circle or in rows—an underlying sense of drama is always present. These encounters might mean little to us, but for the characters, they are practically life-and-death matters.
Through Gail, we see the only real manifestation of an actual meeting, as Bock supplies O’Connell with an extended monologue in the form of a testimonial. (In many ways, it mirrors the long narrative that opens A Life, which David Hyde Pierce performed to shattering effect at Playwrights.) In terms of sheer moment-to-moment connection with an audience, O’Connell may well be delivering the most thrilling twenty minutes of acting this year, without the tiniest hint of autopilot. It helps that Bock avoids mawkishness or self-flagellation; Gail owns up to her troubles, but with forthright clarity and a sense that her past has made her the person she is today. Her final declaration—“I did not drink today”—feels triumphant.
O’Connell has long been a model of grounded, naturalistic acting; her work here takes those qualities to new heights. Rarely have I seen someone so fully disappear into her character. She is matched by a fine ensemble. Francis builds on a series of strong performances in New York (Usual Girls, The Wolves) to suggest a young woman who understands the burden she shoulders and must work hard to overcome. Beltran crafts a deeply emotional portrait of life on the razor’s edge of sobriety. As he did last season in Samuel D. Hunter’s Lewiston, Burton uses humor to obfuscate his character’s sadness and uncertainty; the result is devastating.
Although the piece is more fully realized than most world premieres, some elements have yet to entirely coalesce. The most direct aspect of narrative drama, which involves Gail’s strained relationship with her adult daughter, Angela (Cassie Beck), remains underdeveloped. We only meet Angela briefly, and although Beck brings her usual compelling presence to the role, the scene dances dangerously close to movie-of-the-week territory. It’s an important part of the story for sure, but Bock should find a way to integrate it more fully in order to fully explore the divergence between how Gail sees herself and the scars her daughter still wears. Angela should not come across as unfeeling or spiteful out of hand; she has a legitimate reason to be cautious around her mother. Bock has yet to fully show it.
A series of interludes that unspool between scenes also alter the tone of the piece in the wrong direction. Like many AA meetings, the group here meets in a church basement—but do we need to see a nun futzing around with Jesus and Mary blow-molds, or a group of teenagers playing basketball, to drive the point home? It could also be that director Trip Cullman overaccentuates the comedy of these moments, or that scenic designer Mark Wendland’s rec-room set is a touch too fantastical. Whatever the cause, it distracts from the serious, somber tone of the play.
Distraction is the last thing such a carefully crafted, powerful work needs. Luckily, the scenes that foreground the characters and their trials and tribulations overflow with genuine emotion. They also contain the sad knowledge that sobriety is not a given. The play ends, elliptically, with an acoustic version of the song “I Won’t Back Down.” It’s a poignant choice. The lyrics speak to determination and grit: “Gonna stand my ground / And I won’t back down.” They were written by Tom Petty, who died of a drug overdose. It reminds the audience that sobriety, like life, is tenuous.