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  WINDY CITY TIMES

Oxy, Ohio
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2018-10-10

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Playwright S J. Spencer

At The Side Project Theatre Company at McKaw Theater, 1439 W. Jarvis Ave. Tickets: TheSideProject.net; $15-$20. Runs through: Oct. 14

More than a half-century ago—1956, to be exact—Michael V. Gazzo called our attention to the dangers of pharmaceutical drug addiction in a play premised on a returning war hero's craving for the morphine administered by medics during his recovery from wounds received in action. His entire family's happiness is soon threatened by affliction arising from his desperate search for the now-illicit curatives.

Nowadays we know better than to allow such suffering, right? Not according to S.J. Spencer's play, making its debut at the Side Project, which portrays a nation once more under attack from within, only this time the addicts are honest job-holding citizens, while the purveyors of the toxic substances are licensed physicians and the deadly potions dispensed at commercial vending outlets like Walmart.

We're talking about Opioids, of course—a collective term covering OxyContin, Vicodin, Fentanyl, Percocet and a number of other exotic-sounding palliatives that inflated advertising budgets have rendered familiar at all levels of a populace represented by four residents of the economically crippled town called Dayton, Ohio: a single mother employed in a nursing home; her teenage daughter, clerking for budget hotels and big-box stores; the latter's likewise peripatetically employed boyfriend, and a doctor striving to ease his charges' injuries.

Where Gazzo's prototype focused on the human dynamics of the contagion under scrutiny, however, Spencer appears to mistrust his audiences' perceptive powers. In order to ensure our full recognition of the lesson inherent in the misfortune we witness, his characters periodically break the fourth wall to apprise us of the bigger picture—backstories, statistics, analyses, news items et al.—underlying their warning.

This cross-generic approach renders the progress of his personnel less a tale of innocents battling a pervasive menace than a school-assembly lecture augmented by live-action illustrations—elements absolving its author of the necessity for integrating his factual material into the dramatic action, but ultimately undermining the efficacy of both.

Director Adam Webster and his four-person cast struggle mightily to forge coherent personalities from their author's overstuffed text, but the emotional distance imposed by its instructive purpose ultimately defeats the connection needed for us to share in their sorrow when tragedy inevitably strikes.


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