MORGANTOWN — Johnny Pope, a Korean War veteran, returns to New York addicted to a medication meant to help him. That opioid dependency, coupled with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), deeply and painfully affect Pope and his family.
It’s a story that hits home for Matt Webster, who plays Pope in West Virginia Public Theatre’s (WVPT) version of “A Hatful of Rain,” which opened Wednesday and runs through June 24 in the Gladys G. Davis Theatre at the WVU Creative Arts Center.
“I’m from Ohio, and grew up in a town near Wheeling, in the heart of the opioid epidemic,” said the actor, who’s now based in New York City. “Several people in my graduating class, which wasn’t large, have passed away from addiction-related issues. So this is a story I wanted to be a part of.
“It seemed like it was time to jump into the conversation myself and help tell a story that matters to me and my community.”
That’s also why the folks at WVPT decided to include the 1955 Broadway play in the theater company’s summer line-up, according to artistic director Jerry McGonigle.
It’s centered around two days in the life of Pope, his pregnant wife Celia, his brother Polo and their estranged father and touches on not just addiction and PTSD, but foster care and family secrets.
In order to make sure the production accurately depicts the difficult issues it tackles, actors sat down with two people who have themselves dealt with addiction, as well as Dr. Donald Fidler. While Fidler’s now retired, he was the endowed chair of educational psychiatry at WVU.
“I was there consulting for a few days,” he said. “I looked at post-traumatic stress disorder and opiate use and withdraw and how those things would interact and manifest physically,” he said.
He explained to the cast about symptoms like tremors and sweating, stomach cramps and goose bumps, and how, even those aren’t all things the audience could see, there are still ways to convey the symptoms.
“You could see someone rubbing their arms or looking away from the light,” he said. “Or, for instance, people with PTSD often don’t like to be touched and sit facing a door so they won’t be surprised by something. They also are going to be bothered by loud noises.”
Fidler said he was impressed with how quickly the actors were able to pick up on his advice.
“It was almost immediate,” he said. “They embraced everything, and I think that it’s going to be very realistic for people watching who have dealt with these things or have family members who have.”
Webster, a WVU graduate, has previously worked with Fidler and said his input is always helpful.
“He has a vast knowledge of the subject and gave us very specific notes. It was really amazing.”
He added that having a chance to sit down with those who have gone through addiction changed his perspective.
“They were so generous and open,” he said. “One of them was also a war vet from the Iraq war. … They came in for a morning session and we all sat down for three or four hours and talked. They encouraged us to ask questions. It’s really helpful to be able to apply real-world stories in terms of emotional preparation.
“One thing I probably should have known but didn’t realize is how much guilt and shame that addicts feel. That was surprising to me, and now I can apply so much compassion to the struggle.”
In fact, while Webster said he’s worked hard to nail the physical symptoms associated with addiction and PTSD, he said he’s worked just as hard on the internal side of things.
“This is a family drama,” he said. “It has to be honest, the feelings of love and forgiveness.”
“If this play was just about someone being addicted that wouldn’t be very interesting or important,” he said. “But we see this family trying to be loving and understanding and failing and push through. And if you can push through with love that leads to hope and possible solutions. That’s what’s valuable and what makes this an important story to tell.”
- “A Hatful of Rain” will be presented by West Virginia Public Theatre at 7:30 p.m. today-Sunday and 2 p.m. Sunday, in the Gladys G. Davis Theatre at the WVU Creative Arts Center. Tickets are $18-23 and are available online at wvpublictheatre .org/tickets, at the Mountainlair and CAC box offices, or by calling 304-293-SHOW (7469). Group rates are available by contacting email@example.com. This production is recommended for ages 14 and older.