Goat in the Road’s NUMB – Amelia Parenteau Responds

Photo by Rachel June

When I had my wisdom teeth extracted this past summer, all anyone wanted to tell me about was the rash of fatal opioid overdoses sweeping the nation, offering cautionary tales about the painkillers I would be prescribed. We’ve come a long way as a society in our relationship to painkillers from the 19th-century social circles depicted in Goat in the Road’s production of Numb, which played at JACK in Brooklyn in early December 2016.

Goat in the Road is based in New Orleans, Louisiana, where they drew inspiration for this show from the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum, located there in honor of Louis J. Dufilho, Jr., America’s first licensed pharmacist. Numb was a delightful introduction to this theater ensemble, and a smart, captivating presentation of historical information for contemporary audiences. We follow three interweaving nonfiction narratives over the course of the play, learning about early attempts at pain medication and the characters in history daring enough experiment with it.

The simplicity of Goat in the Road’s storytelling was enchanting, creating the type of production that is highly accessible and wondrously imaginative. With just their bodies, 6 wooden chairs and a table, and a carefully crafted soundtrack, they whisked us through decades and across continents. All actors went barefoot in period costumes, which reinforced both the imagination and attention to detail authentic to their aesthetic.

The company, which has existed since 2008, has finessed their movement work so they are just as capable of describing entire rooms with their bodies as they are doing elaborate choreographed dance numbers. A favorite of these moments was a recitation of a series of words used to describe pain set to a sequence of movements. What could have been a juvenile acting exercise in another context exploded into an engrossing dance piece when embodied for this show.

One of the most shocking scenes in Numb is a mastectomy, committed while the woman was completely sober and conscious. Her bloodcurdling screams made all too real the need for the anesthetics we now take for granted. We learn in this scene that before anesthesia was commonly administered for surgery, patients were liable to run away or commit suicide in advance of an operation, so eventually doctors stopped giving their patients a scheduled date for surgery, and would instead just appear at their homes one day and announce it was time, to reduce flight risk.

Another historic gem of the show was a reenactment of a nitrous oxide show, where a traveling man would show up in town and entice audience members on stage to humiliate themselves in front of an audience (like today’s hypnotists), by publicly dosing them with nitrous and revealing their stoned antics. Ensemble members Todd D’Amour, Shannon Flaherty, and Ian Hoch deserve high praise for their faux stoned hysteria in this scene, falling all over themselves and each other, spiraling further and further out into their personal universes of interior logic.  

For all the historic material, the company is careful to preserve their contemporary values in its retelling. One cheeky choice was not giving male characters names when they weren’t a necessary part of the storytelling (e.g. referring to them as “husband,” or “neighbor boy,” in the same way that female characters have historically been referred to as “mother” or “wife”). Similarly, one female character’s question, “Who is operating my body?” stuck out to me. This query hits home on multiple levels: is it drugs, or surgeons, or the patriarchy, or a sudden stoned consciousness of one’s own autonomous brain?

Numb presents a timely exploration of our relationship to painkillers. We’ve come so far from our feelings and natural reality in America today that it’s hard to imagine a time when being high was truly a new sensation, or when feeling physical pain was simply a fact of human existence. Much of the experimentation with drugs depicted in Numb was “for the cause of painlessness,” which has a bittersweet implication. The human inclination towards comfort and wellbeing has made surgery and recovery such a non-event that the characters in the play probably couldn’t even conceive of it.

Yet when pain is put into direct contrast with numbness, we appear to have lost something by choosing one over the other. If numbness is the absence of feeling, haven’t we abandoned something real and important in the human experience by relieving ourselves of pain? Just as a rejection via text message is not the same thing as dumping someone in person, have we lost some crucial emotional experience and thereby personal development by relying so heavily on the comfort of numbness?

Numb is particularly satisfying as a theatrical experience because we don’t get to see the great discovery, nor the scientist who gets to take credit for introducing nitrous oxide into surgical practice. Instead, we see those who tried and failed, walking the line between innovation and madness, tragedy and comedy. The refrain “we were so close” haunts the play as an important part of the scientific story — and the story of mankind — that we don’t hear often enough. My favorite line of all, though, was the high-on-nitrous revelation: “Do you think longingly about the infinite thing we don’t yet know?” Thankfully productions like this one still provide us the space to long and think and most importantly, feel.

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