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CATHARSIS THEATRE: Ken Vest’s ‘Inside Job’ explores the personal toll of the opioid epidemic

Kenneth Vest’s “Inside Job,” currently onstage at The Cape Fear Playhouse on Castle Street, comes at catharsis head on.

Aristotle experienced theatre as catharsis. Centuries later, it still seems an apt description. Some scripts approach it more directly than others. Kenneth Vest’s “Inside Job,” currently onstage at The Cape Fear Playhouse on Castle Street, comes at it head on. Inspired by events surrounding his son’s death from a heroin overdose, Vest explores the very personal toll of the opioid epidemic and the grief it has extracted from one family.


Abby (Gina Gambony) and Will (Woody Stefl) are struggling with a dilemma common to parents of young adults: It’s time to send their son back to college, to live away from home, away from the watchful eye. But Wyatt (R. J. Thomas) is struggling with an addiction to which they worry he will succumb.

Is he keeping his word to them? Can they believe what he says? Should they come down hard on him and forbid him to return to school? Or does he need understanding and compassionate support? What is the right thing to do? If someone would just tell them, they will do it. But Wyatt can play them against each other so skillfully, they don’t stand a chance. Even when Abby stumbles upon Wyatt’s heroin stash, he’s still going to maneuver them.

Vest could easily have written a full-length script of one family actively battling addiction: group therapy, rehab programs, and relapses with family patterns and secrets carefully aired and sifted for clues to Wyatt’s addiction. But he accepts a greater challenge as a writer: to explore the world of Abby and Will after the loss of their son. They can’t fix this—they can’t change this. It is irrevocable.

So who can tell them what to do now?

Well, for Abby, it is her coworkers and other counselors, especially Nadine (Eleanor Stafford). But Will turns to Griff (Charles Calhoun), one of his oldest friends and a newspaper reporter. Griff can drink with Will to assuage the pain, but as far as trying to keep him in the land of the sane, he is not skilled or qualified. Time after time the good-hearted Griff tries to warn Will and calm him down. Calhoun’s gentle blue eyes overflow with concern and hurt for his friend. He clearly isn’t sure how to help Will, he just worries if he isn’t there, Will could find himself in greater trouble than either of them imagined possible.

It is a valid concern. Stefl’s controlled spiral into obsessive madness is truly frightening, mostly because it isn’t over-the-top. He turns his pain and focus inward, and it is blinding him to everything else trying to permeate—including Abby.

Abby’s lifetime of counseling training and work has run up against “doctor heal thyself.” She discovers she can because she wants to. What she can’t do is save her son or her husband—because neither of them want her help. It is torture of the most profound and personal nature. She cajoles Wyatt and fights for Will, but neither tactic works and she can’t make headway.

Gambony’s clenched frustration wells out of her. Will’s desperation to completely reconstruct the last day of Wyatt’s life is more than she can take; she wants his attention to focus on her, on them, on working through grief. Partner in life—remember?

It’s an interesting and frustrating performance to watch because one alternately roots for Gambony and worries she might be the next victim.

Stafford’s Nadine is suitably concerned for Abby’s safety, not just emotionally but physically, as the show progresses. Her worry that Will might get violent is visible and believable.

As director Steve Vernon reminds, “Grief is a strange landscape, man.” The landscape involves the deceased, Wyatt, because his parents cannot let him go. As Stefl’s Will wrestles and assigns blame and pleads, Wyatt is physically just beyond his reach, much like he was in life, now he is suspended in death. Only now—now what? Does Will hear Wyatt more clearly than he did before? Could he?

Thomas’ Wyatt isn’t so sure. To both his and Vest’s credit, there isn’t the great hurtling of accusations monologue (“You never understood me!”, “If only you had loved me for who I am!”, etc.) The recriminations are largely Will’s lodged against himself. Wyatt, if anything, is more drawn to and interested in his parents than angry with them. He plays Wyatt as actually a pretty sweet and beautiful kid with incredible regret for the pain he causes his parents. But there is no hint he could have (or would have) reversed course. If only … if only.

Instead, Wyatt owns his illness. Will’s journey is not dissimilar from Michael Douglas in Steven Soderbergh’s “Traffic”: an obsessed father consumed by the impact of his child’s addiction. It is a journey I personally would not wish on anyone.

Set designer Scott Davis has eschewed a typical family living room, bar or office set for something more provocative. On gunpowder-grey walls, arteries trace lines that intersect, diverge and at times taper out. Visually, it’s a powerful metaphor for what Wyatt craves to take into his veins, as well as the connections and diversions of this family’s life. By taking the story out of a specific home, or office or bar, and setting it in another worldly limbo, Davis captures the vista of grief. Paired with the belt and syringe stage-right and the bottle of Scotch stage-left, he and director Steve Vernon underscore the variety of dependence the characters struggle with, and shows how they’re constant, with every moment of everyday, pulsing like a heartbeat. Sometimes it’s louder, sometimes softer, but always pulsing. Vernon, Davis and cast give Vest’s script their all.

For a topic so pertinent now, “Inside Job” is a powerful look at how we each handle our demons and love the flawed but wonderful people who make up the world.

Inside Job
Jan. 18-21, 8 p.m. or 3 p.m. only on Sundays
Cape Fear Playhouse  • 613 Castle St.
Tickets: $15

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