It’s one of the hardest titles to gain in life, one of the proudest and yet most painful to carry. It means not only that we have been through hell, but that others who bore the journey with us were left behind, casualties.
As it happens, I’ve seen two plays in a row about survivors.
Bliss Point, the Cornerstone Theater Company’s newest production, honors the human, all-too-human heroes who have walked through hell alive — and those who, half-hidden behind every survivor, did not.
The hell in this case is addiction. A war zone in which somewhere from a third to a half of us are walking, this very day.
But Bliss Point, like a good talk at a 12-step meeting, doesn’t preach. Nor does it get lost in “war stories.” The horrors of battle are its setting. But the story focuses on and connects us with individuals
in their intense personal, emotional, and spiritual struggles.
Addiction is dehumanizing. One of this troupe’s triumphs is that we meet and become attached to characters whom we’d gladly avoid on the street — and we’re not allowed to detach their humanity from our own.
This is all the more impressive when you recall that a Cornerstone play blends trained actors with volunteers from the community in and with which the work is developed. (In this case, people in recovery from addiction.)
Bliss Point is also strengthened by multi-layered storytelling. Jay (Sunkrish Bala), a young Hindu writer, is inquiring into the world of recovery for a magazine article — rather like author Shishir Kurup weaving a script from interviews and group sessions in that world. Rather like us, entering it in a darkened theatre.
But before we meet Jay and his delightful mother (KT Thangavelu), we grit our teeth through an addict’s “come to Jesus” moment. We hang out with hard-hooked young friends,and we cringe as they grab for bliss in a bag or hide like panicked rabbits from their predators — drug dealers, cops, pain, meaninglessness.
Such moments multiply as the stories interweave. By the end, we feel we’re among the walking wounded, while the last man standing rises to speak. The ghosts of the fallen, lost friends we’ve known and hoped for, drift in and occupy the empty chairs.
Juliette Carrillo directs this large, mixed cast in its complex story with a sure hand. Nephelie Andonyadis’ set moves seamlessly from urban squalor to transcendent beauty, while Andrew D. Smith’s lighting and Veronika Vorel’s sound keep us clearly located amid constantly shifting, overlapping moments. JoDyRaY, Talmage A. Tidwell, Amelia Yokel, Jared Ross and David Bard carve their characters into us with special force.
Cornerstone’s name echoes a Bible verse central to the Old and New Testaments alike — “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” Like the tao, the troupe seeks the places we reject, in our society and in ourselves. And from those places, with love and painstaking skill, they make the oldest, most important kind of theatre — the kind that hurts, and heals.
Disclaimer: I have no connection with Cornerstone Theater Company. But I am the son of a substance addict, I am in recovery from emotional addiction, and I’ve had the privilege of working as a therapist with many courageous souls struggling with addiction and in recovery. Let those whose lives are untouched by addiction cast the first stone.
Bliss Point, by Shishir Kurup, directed by Juliette Carillo.Produced by Cornerstone Theater Company.
At the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd.,
Wednesday through Saturday at 8 pm, Sunday at 2 pm,
through June 22.
Performers: Sunkrish Bala, David Bard, Sheela Bhongir, Michelle Farivar, JoDyRaY , Melissa Ann Kestin, Page Leong, Tricia Nykin, Stuart O’Donnell, K.J. Rasheed, Jared Ross, KT Thangavelu, Talmage A. Tidwell, Alberto Virgen, and Amelia Yokel.
Tickets: <www.cornerstonetheater.org> or (310) 477-2055 ext. 2
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