Real life stories: ‘The Heroin Project’ brings the opioid crisis to the stage

  • Linda Tardif, left, fights with Hannah Rechtschaffen, who plays the malign spirit of heroin, in the stage drama “(IN)Dependent: The Heroin Project. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Linda Tardif, front, plays a woman fighting heroin use, and Hannah Rechtschaffen plays the spirit of the drug itself, in “(IN)Dependent: The Heroin Project” at the Academy of Music. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Hannah Rechtschaffen, left, and Trenda Loftin rehearse for “(IN)Dependent: The Heroin Project” at the Academy of Music. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Joseph Cardoza and Linda Tardif rehearse for “(IN)Dependent: The Heroin Project” at the Academy of Music, a drama based on the experiences of heroin users and their families and friends. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Silk Johnson rehearses during “(IN)Dependent: The Heroin Project” at the Academy of Music. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Linda Tardif, left, is litterally in the grip of the character of Heroin, played by Hannah Rechtschaffen in “(IN)Dependent: The Heroin Project” at the Academy of Music. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Hannah Rechtschaffen, top, Marina Goldman, left, and Linda Tardif rehearse for ”The Heroin Project” STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Naomi Aborn, left, and Linda Tardif rehearse for “(IN)Dependent: The Heroin Project” at the Academy of Music. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Isabelle Hettlinger, left, and Naomi Aborn work on a scene from “(IN)Dependent: The Heroin Project.”  STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Emily Ditkovski, left, and Nick DeRuiter during rehearsal. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

For the Gazette
Published: 3/20/2019 4:35:35 PM

Eight people are seated in a semi-circle at a meeting of Narcotics Anonymous. They are actually actors in the play “(IN)Dependent: The Heroin Project,” but though they’re not the recovering addicts they portray, each of them has a real-life connection to the nation’s — and the Valley’s — opioid crisis.

I’m visiting a rehearsal at Northampton’s Academy of Music Theatre, where the play will be performed this Friday and Saturday, March 22-23. The director, Linda McInerney, of the Greenfield company Eggtooth Productions, tells me she was surprised to discover how close to home the plague strikes.

“I think this is a really important show, and I found out how much more deeply it’s important when, at our first read-through, I asked the cast, ‘Is there anyone who has been personally affected by the opioid epidemic?’ ” McInerney says. “And it was shocking. Every single person in the cast had one degree of separation from it” — a friend, a relative, a lover.

“(IN)Dependent” was written by two Kent State University students, Emelia Sherin and Zach Manthey, based on interviews with users, those in recovery, and their friends and families affected by the problem — the three groups represented in the play. The playwrights describe the piece as “a form of artistic activism, created to inform and give back to the community.”

It begins on a split stage, where simultaneous action is occurring in the apartments of Emily and Ryan, both of them recovering heroin addicts who have just relapsed. They soon meet, on adjacent gurneys in the ER and then in the circle at the NA meeting.

There’s an uninvited guest there too, a recurring presence in the play: the figure of Heroin, played by Hannah Rechtschaffen.

She’s “an enticer,” as McInerney puts it, “a voice in the ear of those who are struggling within this epidemic. There are myriad ways she’s able to manipulate the characters, to draw her victims in. For Ryan, she’s a mother figure, while for Emily, there’s a sexuality thing going on.” She’s the force that brings them together and also tears them apart.

Emily is played by Linda Tardif, and Naomi Fleisher plays Ryan. The character of Ryan was actually written as a man, but given to a woman because “Naomi nailed it,” McInerney says. The gender-swap, in this case, is “not a political statement, just a casting choice.”

The cast is a cross-section of Valley talent. Trenda Loftin plays the leader of the NA group, with Carissa Dagenais, Marina Goldman, Silk Johnson and Rich Vaden as its other members. Joseph Cardozo, Emily Ditkovski, Julian Findlay, Isabelle Hettlinger and Nick DeRuiter play other people in the troubled young lovers’ lives.

The staging — a bare stage furnished with plain wooden cubes — is as stark as the play’s topic. Projections represent the various settings within the world of the play. The expressionistic images were created by Conway resident Marcus McLaurin, whose long association with Marvel Comics as a writer/artist produced the Luke Cage revival series, among a number of other superhero titles.

Debra J’Anthony, the Academy’s executive director, told me that as she became increasingly aware of the opioid epidemic and its impact on the local community, she began looking for a play on the issue “that would resonate with our audience. ‘(IN)Dependent’ caught my attention as a fresh, honest look into the struggles, hopes and courage of those impacted by this crisis.”

The production has partnered with Hampshire HOPE, a coalition of Northampton organizations working to raise awareness about opioid misuse disorder, reduce its stigma and “elevate the voices of those who are oppressed,” as press notes put it.

The performances also seek “to provide a deeper, more meaningful community engagement process which allows us to better understand the experiences of those impacted by opioid misuse disorder.”

That partnership included a series of writing groups in four Valley communities, in which people involved in opioid addiction or impacted by it wrote of their personal experiences, using lines from the play as prompts. Several participants will read from this work as a curtain-raiser at this weekend’s performances, and a chapbook, illustrated with McLaurin’s images, will be distributed to all attendees.

In the rehearsal, Naomi Fleisher, as Ryan, stands in the middle of the NA circle, facing the audience as the other group members look on encouragingly.

“This group has shown me how stupid, how dumb it was to give up just when things got hard,” Fleisher/Ryan says. “You’ve given me the strength to analyze my past and understand the damage I’ve inflicted on the ones I love. I think that this is the one time I don’t give up.”

Chris Rohmann can be reached at and

“(IN)Dependent: The Heroin Project” takes place at the Academy of Music Theatre in Northampton Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m.. Tickets are $10-$20 plus fees. For more information, visit



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