Theater & art

Stages

At Merrimack, ‘The White Chip’ gets at the heart of addiction

Merrimack Repertory Theatre artistic director Sean Daniels is also the playwright for “The White Chip.”
Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff
Merrimack Repertory Theatre artistic director Sean Daniels is also the playwright for “The White Chip.”

Sean Daniels, the artistic director of the Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell, says “The White Chip” fills him with a combination of terror and pride.

The comic-drama, which is having its world premiere at MRT starting Jan. 6, chronicles Daniels’s personal struggle with alcohol.

“It might seem crazy to follow three hit shows in my first season on the job with a play about my demons,” Daniels says, “but I decided not to let shame dictate the choices I make.”

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The “white chip” of the title refers to the token that members of Alcoholics Anonymous receive on the first day they commit to staying sober. But it also becomes a symbol of how difficult it was for Daniels to maintain that commitment.

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“Working in the theater,” Daniels says, “all my meetings were in bars. When I was struggling to get sober I kept trying to find something that would help me, but all I came up with were platitudes from the 1920s and ’30s,” he says. “I decided to write the thing I couldn’t find.”

“The White Chip” uses humor and honesty to outline Daniels’s discovery of alcohol as a teenager through his abuse of it during a successful career as a director, the destructive impact it had on his personal and professional life, and how he stopped drinking and got the support he needed to put his life back together.

“I think I’ve been emboldened by the way addiction is now on people’s radars,” Daniels says. “There was so much stigma and shame, but now the governor of Massachusetts is talking about the epidemic of addiction. The challenge is that we all say we understand that it’s a disease, but we expect people to just change their behavior on their own. It’s really important to have support.”

For Daniels, who has worked primarily as a director, “The White Chip” also marks his debut as a playwright.

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“I mostly work on new plays,” he says, “and I am always asking artists to be brave, so I had to ask that of myself, too.”

Director Sheryl Kaller, who recently directed the world premiere of “Choice” at the Huntington Theatre, says that the more honest the story, the more universal it can be.

“I love the challenge of figuring out how to activate Sean’s stories and bring them to life,” Kaller says. “Although his demon is alcohol, we all struggle to change our habits and overcome our own adversities.”

Daniels (far right) with “White Chip” actors (from left) Jeffrey Binder, Isabel Keating, and Benjamin Evett.
Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff
Daniels (far right) with “White Chip” actors (from left) Jeffrey Binder, Isabel Keating, and Benjamin Evett.

In the process of writing the 90-minute play, which features just three actors, with one playing “Sean” and the other two playing everyone else, Daniels says he received lots of encouragement from the playwrights he had worked with in the past, including Greg Kotis (“Urinetown”) and Lauren Gunderson (“I and You”). He also sent his script to Broadway producer Tom Kirdahy (“It’s Only a Play,” “The Visit”), who optioned the play for a future production.

“There is something very appealing about staging this story as a play, rather than a novel, or a movie,” says Kaller. “Theater creates an intimacy where everyone in the room experiences the conflict together,” she says.

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“I think people are a little desperate to talk about this issue,” Daniels says. “When I hit bottom, I felt so alone. But there’s something wonderful about a group of people laughing together in the theater. You are part of a community.”

As part of the run, Merrimack Rep is raising money so that it can offer free tickets to individuals in Lowell House and Megan’s House.

Daniels’s effort to let people who are struggling with addiction know that they aren’t alone has turned into a fund-raising campaign to make a performance of “The White Chip” free to individuals in addiction recovery. Funding came from Megan’s House, Lowell House, MOAR (Massachuetts Organization for Addiction Recovery), and individual donors. Additional funding received will go toward transporting audience members to the performance.

“I have been overwhelmed by the response,” says Daniels. “What I hope people take away from the play is that no matter how bad it is, there is an opportunity to change.”

THE WHITE CHIP

Play by Sean Daniels.

Directed by Sheryl Kaller.

At Merrimack Repertory Theatre, Jan. 6-31.

Tickets: $23-$60. 978-654-4678, www.mrt.org

Terry Byrne can be reached at trbyrne@aol.com.