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SEEKING PURPOSE: Local Ken Vest debuts play, ‘Inside Job,’ inspired by son’s heroin overdose

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In 2012 Ken Vest had to do the unthinkable for any parent: bury his son, Jesse. A heroin addict, Jesse was more than the drug’s take on his life—more than a statistic on disease. He was a living, breathing, talented human, focused on volunteerism and making original music while attending University of San Francisco.

PAIN AND RELIEF: Ken Vest shares his late son Jesse’s (above) story of addiciton, and focuses on help and recovery in ‘Inside Job.’ Courtesy photo.

PAIN AND RELIEF: Ken Vest shares his late son Jesse’s (above) story of addiciton, and focuses on help and recovery in ‘Inside Job.’ Courtesy photo.

“Jesse was a seeker,” Vest describes. “He was constantly searching for answers and knowledge—looking for his purpose in life, volunteering for Project Open Hand, a program to feed homeless drug addicts and people with HIV in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco. . . . He played acoustic and electric guitar. He refused to learn cover songs; he wanted to play his own music and for years we would hear him in the basement, searching for those elusive chords. He had an amazing ability to play two or three different rhythm lines in perfect harmony. Of course, he played maddeningly loud. He was a good drummer and an outstanding hand drummer on his black Djembe.”

Moreover, Jesse’s sardonic sense of humor made him relatable. A friend once told Vest and his wife, “There wasn’t an ounce of bullshit in Jesse.” In the midst of their child’s death, Jesse’s obvious struggle toward sobriety became more apparent.

“When I went to his school to pick up his things, I saw a note taped to the ceiling of his dorm room,” Vest tells. “Every morning he woke up to the slogan, ‘Try to stay clean today.’”

Jesse’s addiction is one of many that led to the nationwide crisis we face today on the misuse of opioids—whether taken as street-drugs or in prescription form. And in actuality, the latter is associated as the basis for the crisis. In the 1990s the increase of prescribed pain relievers began to rise as Big Pharma assured the medical community that addiction to the meds wouldn’t happen.

Thus pain relievers were handed out without much monitoring. Today upward of 29 percent of folks prescribed opioid pain relievers misuse them, with 80 percent of heroin users having used pain relievers first.

“Jesse died of a heroin overdose before it became front-page news,” Vest clarifies. “As a writer and former reporter, I began to keep track of so many things that happen to you when a child dies from drugs. Eventually, I decided to write a play.”

Vest was checking his son’s phone to try and figure out whom he was speaking to the day of his death—but it became too painful. So he pored over stats and numbers in communities affected by opioid abuse across the nation. “I wanted to know as much as I could learn about the cause,” Vest tells. “That is a core plot point.” Over six years of writing and rewriting “Inside Job,” percentages of deaths and addiction grew. Thus, Vest wanted to focus his play on the real-life struggle a family goes through in having a child addict, with the hope of recovery and treatment resonating in its final bow.

“Heroin addiction can affect anyone anywhere any time,” he notes. “I think the play communicates the answer to the crisis is treatment. Treat—don’t blame, don’t shame. Addiction is a brain problem—not a moral failure or criminal intent. It’s a disorder that has an impact on the way we process information about motivation, reward and punishment.”

He started writing biographies of all his characters first: Will (Woody Stefl), Abby (Gina Gambony), Nadine (Eleanor Stafford), Wyatt (RJ Thomas), and Griff (Charles Calhoun). Vest did not want his story arc to be a documentary of his own life, though; he wanted the dialogue and storyline to be a part of a greater truth of coping. The story centers on Will and Abby Mason, who lose their son, Wyatt, to a heroin overdose. “It’s a story of love, loss and charting a new path after tragedy,” Vest explains. As Abby is grieving and yearning for comfort, her husband is trying to track down Wyatt’s dealer for revenge.

“Their separate paths collide in a final reckoning,” Vest explains. “Two friends, Nadine and Griff, play a role. Although Wyatt dies in the beginning, he appears later in dream sequences and as a spirit watching his parents resolve his death.”

Vest and Big Dawg artistic director Steve Vernon hosted a fourth reading of “Inside Job” in August 2017 (three had taken place beforehand in D.C. and locally). In Vernon’s hands, and with actors taking on the sensitive content, “Inside Job” continues to evolve in rehearsal. This weekend it will see its premiere at Cape Fear Playhouse.

“In the past, our culture has assumed drug-related issues were relevant only to people with certain ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds,” Vernon explains. “That view has crept into governmental policies, such as states that demand those that receive certain benefits undertake drug testing. We have a mindset that middle- or upper-class families are immune to drug abuse.”

The opposite is proving true today. Addicts are showing up with access to high-end prescription pills, as well as access to $10 doses of heroin on the streets. The epidemic is widespread and the play represents as much by not showing space or time. Although Wilmington, NC, is a good starting point for its debut, seeing as our community ranked number one in opioid abuse in the nation, according to a Castlight study conducted over a five-year period between 2011 and 2015. The study also found the highest percentages of opioid abuse take place in the rural South.

Having been in Wilmington three years now with his family (and acting in shows like “Death of a Salesman” and “A Few Good Men”), Vest wants to grow “Inside Job” beyond the Port City. “After the premiere we’re going to offer the play and/or selected scenes for use at community meetings as a springboard to discussion,” Vest says.

A student of the Studio Acting Conservatory in DC, Vest’s “Inside Job” is a testament to theatre showcasing “pure and truthful means of communication,” according to the playwright, “and not from the broad perspective but through a human lens.”

Vernon appreciates his point of view being framed through long-term familial and community effects. “Each of the characters are flawed,” the director says. “None are ‘perfect’; they all struggle with their own addictions, whether substance-related or more intangible addictions, such as the need to ‘fix’ everything or the need to control situations . . . The biggest challenge (and it is a healthy challenge, not a detracting one) has been to serve the script while also bearing in mind it was born out of a very real and personal tragedy.”

Inside Job
Jan. 11-14, 18-21, 8 p.m. or 3 p.m. only on Sundays
Cape Fear Playhouse  • 613 Castle St.
Tickets: $15

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