As the progeny of two alcoholic parents, I felt mixed emotions going into Sean Daniels’ autobiographical play, The White Chip. The play traces his descent into alcoholism and subsequent emergence into sobriety. I was an expert martini maker by age 8. It’s no testimony to any nascent mixology skills. My father drank out a glass with an etching of bouncy-ringleted 1930s child star Shirley Temple to ensure my ease of precision – gin to her chin, vermouth to her tooth.
As The White Chip makes manifest in 90 compelling minutes, alcoholism starts at the individual level. However, it subtly shifts from individual to communal impact as its destructive power grows. Kyle Cameron as Sean Daniels unabashedly explores all of the ridges on the road from first drink at age 12 to near coma-level blood alcohol content to sobriety’s many false starts. Thanks to the careful direction of Tony nominee director Sheryl Kaller, the show is extraordinarily well-paced. It is divided into relatively even thirds that treat each aspect of the journey with equal attention. Kaller lets you linger with Daniels on the relatable euphoria of social drinking without releasing the grip when Daniels’ escalating alcoholism has him slurring and lying. Kaller visually reinforces this degradation. Cameron’s initially neat appearance becomes gradually more disheveled. His finely combed hipster haircut devolves into ragged, out-turned spikes as Cameron pulls his hands through his hair.
Hank Bullington’s scenic design is a visual feast that nudges on overwhelming without edging over. An upstage chalkboard stretches to the ceiling. Abundant chalk drawings, most of which feature liquor bottles, foreshadow Daniels’ story. In a thoughtful detail, the floor turns out to be painted with chalkboard paint, which provides another unexpected canvas for the story.
This could have easily been a one-person show, which is what I was expecting given its autobiographical nature. Daniels wisely chooses not to take that route, and the addition of two other characters provide nuance and dimension. Kaller has them both onstage the entire time, utilizing them appropriately, but letting them fade into the background in solo scenes, present but absent.
Cameron shares the stage with #1 (Daina Michelle Griffith) and #2 (Daniel Krell), both of whom play multiple roles. Griffith, in particular, shines as she shapeshifts into Daniels’ mother, wife, lover, coworker, AA facilitator, and Jewish alcohol counselor. Her role is clearly tough as she constantly morphs between a diverse character set, yet Griffith enviably glides effortlessly between them. She casually puts her hair in a ponytail or knots her thigh-length cotton shirt-vest to signify a character shift. While these visual cues are useful augmentation, they’re not even necessary for such a strong actress. It’s never unclear whom she’s portraying at any given moment. As #2, Krell fulfills a similar shapeshifting role within the play. While not as unforgettable as Griffith, Krell is most memorable and developed in his role as a Jesus-pushing rehab counselor with a twang.
Daniels excels most strongly at outwardly expressing the inner workings of the alcoholic mind, and Cameron brings this to life with conviction. Getting to ride-along on an alcoholic’s inner dialogue is both enlightening and terrifying. At one point, he’s attending AA for the second go-around, and he’s gotten to the point where he can “save” his relapses for when he’s out of town. Adopting the what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas logic, he rationalizes these relapses don’t count because his drinking is site-specific. Of course, the center never holds, and each strategy for managed drinking terminates in another bender. His tips on undetected day-drinking in the workplace are a LinkedIn article gone wrong with Gatorade and vodka hydration in the morning, followed by creatively hidden Diet Coke bottles generously spiked with vodka for the afternoon. It’s all an elaborate house of cards, and in the end, neither he nor others are fooled by the recurring collapse.
It’s odd to say a play about alcoholism is ultimately life-affirming. Daniels finds levity and never gets preachy without shying away from alcoholism’s bleakness, successfully avoiding the schmaltz of a Lifetime movie. Daniels’ character opens the show by saying, “When you believe everything is over, it’s just beginning.” It’s an optimistic message that transcends the specificity of alcoholism, a reminder that we all get to navigate new beginnings. City Theatre and Pittsburgh are fortunate enough to play host to this second production of The White Chip. It’s clearly just beginning for this show. Be part of its origin story.
City Theatre’s production of The White Chip continues through May 6th. Learn more and purchase tickets online from the City Theatre.
Categories: Archived Reviews