Hugging the Shoulder sounds intimate, except in this case the shoulder is asphalt. Jerrod Bogard’s examination of lost youth and drug addiction is worthy of its own circle in Dante’s Hell, and it is stunning audiences at Shadowbox Theatre.
Under the nuanced direction of Glenn Meche, the talented cast was undaunted by the grueling trudge through despair. The story centers on the efforts of Derrick (Joe Seibert) to wean his older brother Jeremy (Eli Grove) off heroin by locking him in the back seat of a van and driving with no destination other than sobriety. The pilgrimage is messy as Jeremy is aggressive, sometimes incoherent and often vomits. In one extended scene, he writhes on the ground in his underwear. Determined to save his brother at all coasts, Derrick desperately contains himself.
The brothers are a foul-mouthed pair, and while this may represent a kind of gritty realism, it becomes tiresome, for we have become inured to torrents of “f—k this” and “f—k that” and “I’m gonna f—king kill you.” At one point, Jeremy calls Derrick a “pinko rat bastard.” That particular term offered such a whiff of the Cold War, I wondered if the drug addiction grew out of service in Vietnam, but there’s no hint if it did.
Shoulder alternates between two locations. Eli Grove’s clever modular set starts as a van and then transforms into a small room. It switches back and forth throughout the play, adding to the claustrophobia of the small cast and limited, if intense, conflict.
Christy (Liz Mills) is Jeremy’s girlfriend and warns him she won’t stay faithful if he “goes back” — to war? To drugs? Amid the chaos, the brothers recall moments from childhood but they usually have different memories of the same event. Shooting at each other with BB guns their father gave them seems to be a highlight. Neither parent appears in the drama, but the offstage mother seems to have been an addict of some kind.
In some ways, the most compelling image of the play is the moment when we see Jeremy give himself a fix. He wraps his arm tightly with his belt, injects himself and passes out. There is something chilling about this diabolic ritual — like sadomasochism performed in a chapel.
In the end, Jeremy is gone. Suicide? An overdose? Christy comes on to Derrick but in a twisted way. Shoulder begins in darkness and after a brief glimmer of light founders back into darkness.
Hugging the Shoulder
8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, Aug. 18-20