Report — From the October 2014 issue

You Are Not Alone Across Time

Using Sophocles to treat PTSD

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Six months before traveling to Japan with Doerries, I met up with him and Kaufman in Hazard, Kentucky, as they debuted a new project. Pill mills — where unscrupulous doctors write prescriptions for drugs like oxycodone or hydrocodone — have proliferated in Kentucky, and the number of drug-overdose deaths in the state has quadrupled since 1999. Doerries chose Bacchae as his text.

The crowd that had gathered outside the Perry County Public Library auditorium (capacity: 200) seemed most excited about the prospect of seeing Jesse Eisenberg, who was acting alongside Adam Driver, Kathleen Chalfant, and Peter Francis James. A girl with wavy auburn hair wearing cutoff jeans rolled to mid-thigh fiddled with her charm bracelet as she asked a friend if she’d seen Jesse yet. Behind her, one of two teens in matching T-shirts — THE COMMODORE PLAYERS BREAK A LEG!’ NOT LITERALLY! — hadn’t seen him either . . . except in Zombieland, ha-ha, which was awesome!

As the auditorium began to fill, the actors took their seats at two banquet tables set end to end near the front of the stage. The kids who’d been abuzz outside filed into the front rows, murmuring and giggling, while families gathered at the rear. A representative from Operation UNITE (Unlawful Narcotics Investigations, Treatment, and Education), one of the regional sponsors of the event, related some statistics: although the United States was 3 percent of the world population, we consumed 97 percent of all hydrocodone; eighty-two Kentuckians died of overdoses every month; and over the first ninety days of 2012, five people a day were treated in Kentucky for opioid-related overdoses. Then Doerries picked up a wireless mic, fumbled with it momentarily, and, pacing the stage, began to speak.

He has done some version of the introduction that followed more than 300 times in the past five years. Of the actors who were there that day, Driver, who was a Marine before he went to Juilliard, had seen Doerries in this mode the most, having performed with the company since 2008. “The biggest change I’ve seen in Bryan during all this time,” Driver told me, “is that he’s more comfortable with the speech at the beginning. He’s done it so many times, and he’s figured out how to address the audience without condescension. He’s not some guy coming from New York to a community to tell them what it’s like in the military or whatever. He’s so good at keeping in contact with everyone, at starting the conversation.”

“There’s just one more thing you need to know,” Doerries said several times with a smile, feeding the crowd just enough information about the historical and dramatic context for the play. Bacchae tells the story of the coming of Dionysus, the god of wine and intoxication, to Greece. When Dionysus arrives in the city of Thebes, he liberates the people from their homes, sending the citizens — including the king’s mother — dancing and drinking into the hills. The young king, Pentheus, tries to subdue the revelry and restore order to his city, waging war against the god.

Over the next forty-five minutes, the actors sprinted through their lines, Doerries jabbing them along. He wants urgency in the delivery, for the exchanges of dialogue to feel not like tennis, he says, but ping-pong. No props, no scenery, no costumes, no stagecraft of any kind. And although I appreciate that you’ll need to take this on faith, none of those absences were felt in that room. Eisenberg and Driver tore through their lines with pugilistic intensity. Eisenberg played Pentheus, bouncing up out of his seat and unspooling his lines in an I’m-much-smarter-than-you patter. Driver as Dionysus took on a fey lasciviousness that — given that Driver looks like he could kill Eisenberg with one punch — seemed like a lewd threat.

PENTHEUS: Do you dance at night or in the light of day?
DIONYSUS: At night, mostly. Darkness holds the most majesty.
PENTHEUS: Darkness is dangerous, and rotten for women.
DIONYSUS: You can find scandal in broad daylight, if it’s what you’re looking for.

Audience laughter, nervous and eager, punctuated every delivery. The scandalous plot unfolded: Dionysian drunkenness becomes general all over the kingdom and claims even Pentheus’ mother, Agave. In her delusional, revelrous state, she and her fellow celebrants mistake her son for a lion, and Agave tears him apart with her bare hands. It’s Agave’s father, Cadmus, happening upon his drunken child, who awakens her to the reality of what she has done: she has decapitated Pentheus and taken his head in her lap, believing it a great prize. Playing the moment when Agave comes to, Chalfant shed real tears and released a terrible scream — yet another “inhuman cry” — into the small, silent room. It came as a relief to recall, as the sound subsided, that what I was watching was make-believe.

“I’d like to say that I primarily enjoy performing these plays because they are done in socially substantive contexts that generate interesting discussions,” Eisenberg told me later, “but I actually mainly enjoy the acting part of it — the emotional and intellectual experience provided by these situations and characters. I think the more emotionally revealing we are onstage, the more comfortable the audience is in participating in personal and sensitive discussions, in revealing themselves afterward.”

Outside the Wire’s projects always unfold in three parts — performance, panel, and conversation — and as the play ended, the panelists took the stage. Along with Doerries, there was a Hazard circuit-court judge, an educator, a former drug dealer turned youth pastor, and a clinical pharmacist from nearby Pikeville Medical Center.

Referring to Agave’s intoxicated murder of her son, the pharmacist said, “I see that every single day. The babies in the NICU . . . it’s so sad. Probably fifty percent are suffering withdrawals.”

The youth pastor addressed the audience directly. “How many of you have lost a close friend or family member to drugs?” A third of the hands rose. “Now, how many of you know somebody who’s died of drugs?” Everyone.

During part three of the evening — the conversation — the girl I’d seen out front with the charm bracelet raised her hand and began speaking in a high, quavering voice.

“I have parents who have been on drugs and who have set a horrible example for my family, and my older brother has done the same thing, and I’m trying to set an example for him, but it’s so hard and . . .” She began to cry. “I decided I want to be there for him and say: ‘Hey, I’m gonna help you struggle — since they don’t.’ I’m more adult than my parents. They come to me for advice. I try to send them in the right way, but they want money from me, and I’m trying so hard but . . .” As she sobbed, two rows of kids’ arms fell around her in an embrace.

If any of this sounds like something you might have seen on Oprah, the comparison isn’t unfair. For his part, Doerries tells his audiences he’ll be roaming the rows with a mic “like Phil Donahue.” He’s using the familiar to deliver an experience that has become alien: the collective witness of suffering fashioned by an artist to unite a community in need.

“If we had one message to deliver to you,” Doerries said before bringing the evening to a close, releasing Eisenberg to sign autographs and chat with his fans, “if you’ve been in the position where you felt alone in this problem, you felt like you alone were facing it by yourself, then we have a message to deliver to you from Euripides. As the translator of this play — God knows I’ve taken enough liberties with his words tonight — it’s this: You’re not alone in this room, as evidenced by this amazing conversation, this bearing witness. You’re not alone across this country and the world, for we’re going to take this Dionysus Project all over the world, and what you’ve told us tonight will come with us. And as powerful as the Internet is, the experience of two hundred people in a room spending two hours together is a different way to combat isolation. Most importantly, if we had one message to deliver to you, two thousand four hundred years later, it’s simply this: You are not alone across time.”

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is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine. He teaches at Bard College and, through the Bard Prison Initiative, at Eastern Correctional Facility.

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