What does it take to overcome an addiction to alcohol? Many people find success through the twelve-step model, which requires, among other things, that addicts surrender to a higher power. But what do people do who, for one reason or another, find it impossible to believe in a higher power?
That’s one question, among many regarding the difficult road to recovery, that Sean Daniels’ autobiographical play answers. The “white chip” of the title refers to the first plastic sobriety medallion a person receives at an AA meeting upon declaring an intention to stop drinking. Daniels (played engagingly by Kyle Cameron) finds himself the recipient of plenty of these, as rehabilitation attempt after rehabilitation attempt fails to help him say “no” to booze.
The play is written as a combination of first-person narration and brief scenes of dialogue, with side commentary tossed in regularly by Daina Michelle Griffith and Daniel Krell, who alternate between tallying up the “pro’s” and “con’s” of drinking and stepping into the roles of the many colleagues, friends, relatives, and lovers impacted by Daniels’ love affair with alcohol. The tone of the writing is playfully self-aware, consisting mostly of direct address to the audience that is laced with a good deal of sardonic self-criticism. The three actors capture that tone with a casual confidence, establishing an easy comic rapport with each other and the audience. The playful tone is underscored by Leon Rothenberg’s whimsical sound design, which punctuates the action at apropos moments with comic sound effects – doorbells, chimes, trumpets, and choirs of angels – that help keep the story light even when the subject matter turns dark.
I’m often skeptical about plays that depend heavily on narration, but this one really works. Director Sheryl Kaller has shaped the action with a keen sense of timing and pace, and she handles the shifts between narration and microscenes with panache. Robert C. T. Steele’s costumes help keep the action flowing, as iconic articles of clothing help to quickly and efficiently establish new characters, and Hank Bullington’s bi-level set simultaneously supports and makes fun of the inherent didacticism of any play about recovery, featuring chalkboards on multiple levels that allow the actors to trace (and at times erase) the “lessons” learned along the road to recovery.
It helps the comic energy of the play that the story Daniels has to tell is one that has a happy ending – his perspective as a storyteller is fully inflected by the fact that he managed to find a way to get sober, stay sober, and rebuild the life that alcohol destroyed. That his way did not involve succumbing to a higher power may be the most sobering insight he has to offer, as it points to the ways addiction-recovery programs may fail to serve those who like their solutions evidence-based.