By Annette Hinkle
For parents, the love of a child is absolute. But the issue of addiction has a way of testing familial bonds unlike any other, and when a child spends years struggling with addiction, over time even the most dedicated parent can find that love is conditional.
“Ashes and Ink,” Martha Pichey’s new play, explores just that by telling the tough love tale of a mother and son dealing with the ramifications of drug addiction. The action centers on Quinn, a young man who, after the sudden death of his father, has became addicted to crack cocaine, and Molly, the mother who is trying to save him.
On Friday, “Ashes and Ink” will be offered as a staged reading at the JDTLab at Guild Hall, a place where new plays and playwrights are supported with space and time to present work, as well as nearby living quarters where actors, directors and playwrights can stay during the process.
This is Ms. Pichey’s first play and she is excited by the opportunity to bring it to a live audience via the JDTLab, which is the brainchild of John Drew Theater’s artistic director Josh Gladstone.
“Josh is open to new ideas and working with people who don’t have a track record and making Guild Hall more accessible to people,” says Ms. Pichey, a part time Shelter Island resident. “The fact we have Guild House, right behind Guild Hall and the actors have a nice place to stay, rehearsal space and time for two days…you don’t often get that.”
“All the actors love the idea,” she adds.
For Ms. Pichey, whose professional background is in screenplay and magazine writing, presenting “Ashes and Ink” at JDTLab also provides the kind of valuable feedback that can only come from an audience of strangers.
“The reading at Guild Hall will be my third public reading where people I don’t know will be there,” says Ms. Pichey, “I’ve been taking workshops, classes and meeting a lot of talented and generous people, including actors and writers. I’ve called on them for suggestions, gotten a workshop together, gone scene by scene, draft by draft and then had a reading and another one.”
“As frustrated as I can get that this is not a production yet, it’s really important to have readings where you can sit in the audience, watch how people react or don’t and work with actors to see how they take on their roles,” explains Ms. Pichey. “There are four characters in this play and every actor has to take on the play as if they are the center of it.”
“That’s interesting to watch,” she adds. “They make it their own and put themselves at the center of the drama.”
And by its very nature, “Ashes and Ink” is a play with plenty of drama. It opens with Quinn, who has barely graduated from high school, coming home after a second stint at rehab. As part of his recovery, Quinn is expected to enter a contained community, but instead he is eager to pursue his fledgling acting career and has been given an opportunity to do so by auditioning for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London.
“The director comes to New York to audition a handful of potential students and Quinn is one of them,” explains Ms. Pichey. “He had acted in some movies, but he was screwing up on set and his reputation is damaged.”
“Now he’s out of rehab and it’s this window of opportunity,” she adds.
That window may represent a world of possibility for Quinn, but Ms. Pichey cautions that for Molly, it represents a freedom Quinn may not yet be able to handle — and the longer the window stays open, the greater the potential for bad things to happen.
“Both of them are dealing with the fallout of having lost the father, her husband,” explains Ms. Pichey who adds that while Molly wants to be supportive, she is also trying to make a new life with her boyfriend, Leo, and his seven-year-old son who is yearning for a mother.
“Molly’s boyfriend studies the science of birdsong,” explains Ms. Pichey. “She’s an audio engineer and starts working with him recording song sparrows in the field. They’re comparing how the young bird learns in the lab with a tutor compared to how they learn in the field.”
Ms. Pichey explains that throughout the play, birdsong acts as a leitmotif for Molly who comes to discover that birds learn their songs through the father or a neighboring male.
“She’s desperate to have her son understand that his father’s song lives through her,” she says. “She worries that he is still vulnerable to the lures of addiction.”
While this play is not autobiographical, Ms. Pichey admits that some of the details are born of personal experience. Ten years ago, her husband died at the age of 46 and she was left to raise three sons on her own. Addiction, including alcoholism, has also been present in more than one generation of her family.
“In this play I wanted to address the issues of addiction and grief because I feel it’s all around us and we have to address it and not turn away,” she says. “People are out on a limb and lonely.”
“I think so many of us are touched by addiction,” notes Ms. Pichey. “A question for Molly is, how do I love my son when I hate what he’s doing to himself?”
It may ultimately be a question best left to professionals and for that reason, Ms. Pichey has invited Sag Harbor’s Dr. Robby Stein, a family therapist, to take part in a talkback session after Friday’s reading.
“Things are unresolved at the end of this play,” says Ms. Pichey. “Molly is on her knees and from an audiences point of view, do they think she’s pathetic or protecting herself so she can find a way to help Quinn?”
And as is often the case in real life and powerful theater, sometimes there are no easy answers.