'St. Bernard, An Opioid Play' Livestreams on Zoom | Theater | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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'St. Bernard, An Opioid Play' Livestreams on Zoom

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Sam Finn Cutler - COURTESY OF MIDDLEBURY ACTING COMPANY
  • Courtesy Of Middlebury Acting Company
  • Sam Finn Cutler

This is not a story about a shaggy dog. St. Bernard, An Opioid Play centers on addicts — one who is doing her very best to stay clean, one who sorta-kinda-maybe is planning to try, and a couple of other characters who just go along for the ride. One of them ends up dead of an overdose.

Despite its serious and highly topical subject matter, St. Bernard has its moments of comedy. The three active users are fools, after all, and their delusional rationalizing can be darkly humorous — in the way that Waiting for Godot is funny yet maddening.

Peter Espenshade wrote the play, his first. The Middlebury Acting Company livestreams a reading this week via Zoom, with the first act on Thursday, May 28, and the second act the following night. After that, the reading can be viewed in its entirety on YouTube, according to Middlebury Acting Company artistic director Melissa Lourie.

Though previously workshopped with Lourie and others and performed "for friends and family," the play is still a work in progress, and audience feedback is welcome. "I'll want to put it on our regular season" at some point, Lourie says. For a play written over the past year or so, that's an unusually fast path to performance.

Shelburne-based Espenshade, who's been president of the Vermont Association for Mental Health and Addiction Recovery since 2013, says he previously had no idea how plays come together; he's been pleasantly amazed at the collaborative approach. "Cristina [Alicea, producing artistic director of Vermont Stage] read through it and gave me feedback, too," Espenshade relates. "And Gary Miller of Writers for Recovery read it. It's been a corporate, collective experience."

St. Bernard is named for the fictional "brand" of one dealer's heroin. Rather than being based on specific individuals, Espenshade says, the characters are composites drawn from stories he has heard through his work. As someone who has struggled with substance-abuse disorder, he offers a telling that rings true.

Alexandra Hudson - COURTESY OF MIDDLEBURY ACTING COMPANY
  • Courtesy Of Middlebury Acting Company
  • Alexandra Hudson

"With a ton of love and support, I managed to get in recovery," Espenshade says. "It's like a renaissance, a whole new life. You're trying to be present in your life, not just fill it with that other stuff."

That description fits his character Amanda, a single parent who's working hard to reassemble a responsible life that includes her child and her nursing career. Alexandra Hudson plays her in the reading this week. Her daughter's father, played by Sam Finn Cutler, chooses a far less commendable path.

In his job as a recovery coach, Espenshade counts himself lucky that "I get to work on the recovery end" of addiction. "It's such incredible work," he says. "I've learned so much in even the past five years."

He won't leave that mission behind to add "playwright" to his résumé. But, after recently ending a six-year stint on the Vermont Stage board, Espenshade says he's been excited to connect with the theater community again. "They're so gracious and generous and helpful," he says. "I like the camaraderie very much."

A performance on Zoom is not anyone's ideal debut, but even the small screen may not slow down the play's "breakneck action," as Lourie calls it. "It's believable, relevant, a specific story," she says of St. Bernard. "It's full of possibilities."

The original print version of this article was headlined "High Drama"