LOWELL — Go to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, or any addiction support group, and one thing that may surprise you is how often the people there laugh.
Sometimes, when you have fallen lower than you ever thought you could go, the only way to cope with is to acknowledge the trips that took you there. Gallows humor comes with the territory of recovery.
Beginning Jan. 6, the cast of “The White Chip” will bring a slice of that dark comedy to the stage of the Merrimack Repertory Theater. The 90-minute play was written by the theater’s new artistic director, Sean Daniels, as he was struggling to break free from a battle with alcoholism that had nearly ruined his career and his family.
“I was looking around for something that I could read or watch or I could do to get some advice on what I should be doing right now, and I was looking for something with a sense of humor,” Daniels said, adding “I think there’s a real power in how laughter destroys shame.”
The arts and theater world is no stranger to alcohol. Every third meeting in the industry is held at a bar, Daniels joked.
As he reappeared on the scene as his sober self, it seemed Daniels was surrounded by colleagues with similar stories. On the stage and screen, however, alcoholics were too often portrayed as the butt of unsympathetic jokes.
But don’t worry, audience. “The White Chip” is not a soap box from which Daniels will preach.
“It’s a fun night, it’s a joyful night,” said Jeffrey Binder, who plays Daniels in the play. “Certainly there are some dark moments but that just contrasts the joy.”
The performance is also written, and staged, to appeal to those who have never experienced addiction, those who have survived it, and those working their way out.
All tickets for the Jan. 19 performance have been set aside for people in local recovery programs that helped sponsor the play, such as Lowell House, Inc., Megan’s House, and the Massachusetts Organization for Addiction Recovery.
And on Jan. 13, several participants in Lowell House’s programs will participate in a discussion with the audience after the final curtain.
“It’s a very interesting play,” said Bill Garr, CEO of Lowell House. “For a lot of our folks it’s not only entertainment, because it will be entertaining, it’s also cathartic.”
“The White Chip” flashes through Daniels’ Mormon upbringing, well meaning-bosses, his time in Louisville, Kentucky (the land of bourbon, where mint juleps quite literally flow from fountains), his relationship with his mother, and a group of analytical Jews who were instrumental in his recovery.
Director Sheryl Kaller, one of the team’s eight Tony-nominated talents, oversees a cast that includes Benjamin Evett, a former member of the American Repertory Theater; Isabel Keating, who was nominated for her roll in “The Boy from Oz”; and Binder, who has been featured on Broadway and in the television show “Damages.”
One of the strengths of “The White Chip,” Binder said, is that Daniels was willing to sit down with the cast and director during the first week of rehearsals and distill his script down into the moments that provide the most emotional and comedic impact.
“A lot of us encounter people and situations where we don’t know what to do; we haven’t had this experience,” Binder said. But they play is just as relatable because “you see a guy who is really just trying to deal with it in his own way, but he doesn’t know how to deal with it.”
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The cast of “The White Chip,” a darkly funny take on the science of addiction and recovery, from left, Benjamin Evett, Jeffrey Binder, and Isabel Keating.
PHOTO BY MEGHAN MOORE