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Morgantown Theater Explores Trauma, Addiction, Love in A Hatful of Rain

Glynis Board
West Virginia Public Broadcasting
At the basement theater of West Virginia University’s Creative Arts Center in Morgantown, actors Matt Webster, Sadie Belle Freeman, and director Jerry McGonigle rehearse of A Hatful of Rain.";

A theater company in Morgantown is producing a play that grapples with trauma, addiction and love as part of its 2018 summer season.

Playing off of the drama and emotion evoked on the stage, and in combination with community experts, West Virginia Public Theater hopes to add to the community conversation about the substance abuse issues ravaging the region.

Gerald McGonigle is the artistic director of West Virginia Public Theater, and director of the play called A Hatful of Rain, written by Michael Vincente Gazzo.

"It’s a play that was written in the '50s, and it’s ultimately about family and love. It’s got a very redemptive quality to it," McGonigle said.

This play was added to the summer repertoire in part because McGonigle believes theater has a responsibility to not only entertain, but also be socially conscious.

"Whatever we can do as a theater to bring the consciousness of love to this crisis and just help people confront it," he said.

"And what I love about it is it’s so human," he added.

To help encourage a dialogue about some of the challenges associated with substance abuse, West Virginia Public Theater is teaming up with West Virginia University’s Health Sciences department during the run of the show. Each performance will begin with a short talk about substance abuse issues the region faces. The final performance is slated to end with a panel discussion.

Understanding Trauma, Addiction

McGonigle reflected that the ongoing substance abuse crisis hasn’t spared anyone -- Not his community, not him, and not his cast members either.

Matt Webster plays one of the leading roles -- a traumatized veteran returning from the Korean War, who becomes dependent on pain medicine. Webster came in for the role from New York City. He got his MFA in acting here at West Virginia University, and he also grew up in the upper Ohio Valley. He said in his small high school class, substance abuse has already played an outsized role.

"I think we have around nine or ten classmates of mine that have already passed away from overdose," he said. "They even started a Facebook group for friends and family of our class to support each other. I just felt like it was time to jump into the conversation."

Cast members consulted with local veterans who struggle with addiction as well as retired psychiatrist Dr. Don Fiddler to understand the physical and emotional realities associated with substance withdrawal and dealing with trauma.

"I worked with them some on some things like the way people try to conceal withdrawal symptoms, and the emotional ability people have," Fiddler said. He also explained to the cast that post traumatic stress causes those suffer from it to relive those experiences. 

"So it’s not panic to the experience so much but about being there in body and mind and actually reliving that," he said.

The play has some dark moments, but Webster said it’s not a show designed to devastate audiences.

"The core of great theater [is] when you’re sitting next to people and you’re experiencing emotion together," he said. "So I think, although there are challenging moments in the show, the show is ultimately about family and about love and about forgiveness. And I think those themes will be what you leave the theater with.”

A Hatful of Rain will be performed at the Gladys G. Davis Theatre in Morgantown, West Virginia, June 20-24, at 7:30 P.M. and at 2:00 P.M. on Sunday.

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