The message is reiterated throughout the performance, and each time, it becomes more tangible: you can have the worst circumstances or the best upbringing, but drug addiction doesn’t discriminate. It can hit anyone at any time. Theater Oblivion’s Siren Songs invites you to follow the highs and lows of seven individuals on the road to recovery. Led by the man with the guitar and songbook, you can’t help but let your emotions out on the floor, as all the characters piece together who they are, past, present, and future, while living with their disease.
Peter Loikits, Amanda Shaffern, and others from the Theater Oblivion team devised this documentary-style piece by interviewing more than 50 people affected by the opioid crisis. In seven stories from a mountain of material, these diverse characters meet by chance on a broken-down SEPTA train. Realizing they have all gone through the trials of addiction, they link up, connect, and explain in detail their own road to sobriety, whether they’re on it or not.
The beginning is hard to dive into. The language isn’t flowery, it’s real. It isn’t streamlined, it’s messy. But these are real people speaking to you; their words aren’t sugar-coated and neither are their struggles. Intense subjects, like sexual abuse and suicide, are sprinkled into stories full of ya know? and like, um colloquialisms. We move in and out of linear space as the play goes on, and as we do, the theatrical pieces strike a beautiful balance against the raw words of real substance survivors.
There are cheers from the other characters when they connect, sighs when something gets too real, affectionate touches when the tears start to flow, and music when everyone, including the audience, needs to breathe. We watch the projector onstage, mostly showing a first-person view of traveling by train through the city. The actors try their best to move just as quickly and stay focused as they work to get through their dense stories. There’s a lot to unpack, but with every piece they share, it’s hard to imagine what could be cut.
To sing together
You sort of feel on the outside looking in, but that also feels like the point. Given the magnitude of the opioid crisis in the United States, so many of us have stories about the ravages of substance abuse on families and loved ones. We connect with mothers and boyfriends trying to save the ones they care about, and watch while some blame loved ones who live with addiction for their own misdeeds.
It’s rare that we put the ones using the drugs, making the choices, and living with the consequences under the spotlight. Under Loikits’s direction, Siren Songs infuses humanity back into the narrative of our nationwide opioid epidemic. You begin to provide the tears, sighs, and cheers for these people. You, the audience, begin to show up as the loved ones. At the heart of the play is a call for empathy, a beautiful song to sing together.
What, When, Where
Siren Songs. By Theater Oblivion and Amanda Shaffern. Directed by Peter Loitkitz. Through September 15, 2019, at the Warehouse on Watts, 923-29 N. Watts Street, Philadelphia. (215) 413-1318 or fringearts.com.
Free Narcan workshops are available prior to performances on September 10 and 13.
Warehouse on Watts is a wheelchair-accessible venue.