Do you have a “normie” friend or family member you’ve considered bringing to a meeting so they can finally get it, but you’re worried they’d be bored out of their minds? If you’re in Southern California, have no fear because Bliss Point is here for two more weekends at L.A.’s Odyssey Theatre.
Awareness Through Acting
Bliss Point is the fifth play in The Hunger Cycle, and no, that’s not a ripoff of a certain Jennifer Lawrence blockbuster franchise. It’s a nine-play series by Cornerstone Theater Company, which has produced socially conscious theater in Los Angeles for over 20 years. But Bliss Point stands out from other Hunger Cycle plays in that it doesn’t deal with hunger for food, but the spiritual hunger of addiction.
The magic of Bliss Point is that most cast members are in recovery themselves. In fact, many have never acted before, yet they hold their own with the pros through the sheer authenticity they project. No acting training can substitute for the experience of living with addiction firsthand.
A Play by Play of the Play
The play alternates between two plotlines. In one, the young journalist Jay (Sunkrish Bala) struggles to write an article on addiction for Rolling Stone. He interviews addicts in rehab but still goes home every night to a blank page—and the goading of his diabetic mother Aya (KT Thangavelu), a former nurse who pops painkillers for her never-ending ailments. The other storyline follows a young junkie named Seamus (Talmage A. Tidwell) and his friends on what becomes (spoiler alert!) a terrible, horrible, no good very bad day. Unsurprisingly, Jay’s and Seamus’ stories converge, though not in the way the audience expects.
One of the play’s goals is to break down outsiders’ misconceptions about addiction and foster deeper compassion for addicts. To that end, Jay the journalist serves as an entry-point character for the non-addicts in the audience. When Aya compares him to his father, a violent alcoholic who’s been absent for a decade, Jay’s kneejerk response is that he’s “nothing like him.” But of course, he’s more like him than he thinks.
It’s hard not to see Jay as an analog for playwright Shishir Kurup, who visited local treatment facilities such as Phoenix House, Beit T’Shuvah, and The Hills to interview addicts for Bliss Point. Jay himself may not be an addict, but he embodies Kurup’s statement that “You can’t help but put yourself into the picture and how addiction may have or may not have affected your life.” And as Jay’s attitude shifts over the course of the play, he pulls the audience with him.
All the actors should be commended for the heart they bring to this story, but a few deserve special mention. As the androgynous junkie Arif, JoDyRay electrifies the stage. The desperation in his lament, “What I would give for 18 months!” echoes in the heart of anybody who has been there. And when Arif agonizes over his Fifth Step, wondering what character defects he had that caused his aunt to abuse him, hearts break. It’s a luminous performance, flamboyant yet piercingly authentic.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, but equally notable, is K.T. Thangavelu’s subtle turn as Jay’s mother, Aya. Thangavelu is a veteran of the Cornerstone stage, and it shows as she pivots from acerbic to tender in the space of a line. Her witty exchanges with Jay add a welcome dose of levity to the story’s unflinching darkness.
Kurup’s poignant script is grounded in real talk, like the inadvertent poetry of 12-step shares. Whether it’s Seamus and Lara (Amelia Yokel) musing about the possibility of sober lovemaking, or rehab patient Summer (Melissa Ann Kestin) revealing her hidden demons, it rings true.
Below the Surface
Bliss Point is about more than addiction, just as addiction itself is never just about substance abuse. It’s a play about family, the trauma they inflict on one another and the possibility of reconciliation. The play also explores the contradictory attitudes many hold toward addiction. Aya pops prescription pills liberally but is too embarrassed to get a medical marijuana prescription. While Jay feels compassion for the addicts he interviews, he refuses to extend that compassion to his own alcoholic father.
Cynics may gripe that the plot succumbs to a couple clichés. But addicts know that such clichés become tropes in the first place because they’re just that universal. And Bliss Point can also be unpredictable, especially in some of its subtler narrative choices. At several points it could have spun off into Requiem for a Dream territory and consciously doesn’t. Because it pulses with the pain of the actors who have lived its story, Bliss Point never tips into melodrama. In some moments it feels a lot like a 12-step meeting, complete with tales from the bottom, unexpected confessions and even a birthday.
A Noble and Needed Cause
“My aspiration is to honor the full humanness of the people who so generously placed their stories in my hand, lodged them in my heart and scattered them across my psyche,” Kurup writes in the program notes. “To honor their resilience as well as their missteps…and finally to blur to the point of non-existence the difference between ‘them’ and the rest of the world who aren’t labeled ‘addicts.’”
It’s an ambitious and necessary goal. While a play alone can’t totally uproot deep-rooted cultural stigma, Bliss Point really understands that the gap between Jay and Seamus or Aya and Lara is not that wide. It successfully conveys the reality that addicts are just people coping with pain in the only way they know how.
Cornerstone’s previous productions include the five-play Watts Cycle and the seven-play Faith-Based Cycle. Including an addiction story in the series on hunger broadens and deepens the discussion of what hunger is. Yet addiction casts a wide enough shadow that I can’t help wishing Cornerstone had produced an entire cycle on the subject, made up of—what else?—12 plays. They certainly have the cast for it.
Bliss Point runs Thursday to Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. through June 22 at the Odyssey. Tickets are give-what-you-can from $5-$30.