Playwright Sean Daniels, a self-described “recovering Mormon,” struggled for years with alcoholism, trying everything from outpatient therapy and rehab to attending “hundreds of AA meetings.” But it wasn’t until he was advised to “get sober with The Jews” that Daniels finally could beat his addiction.
His autobiographical struggle with alcohol — and ultimate redemption — is humorously and poignantly depicted in his play, “The White Chip,” running at the City Theatre on Pittsburgh’s South Side now through May 6.
“The White Chip” recounts Daniels’ journey through alcoholism, beginning with his first sip of beer as an adolescent Mormon to his association with a group of Jewish men in Jacksonville, Fla., whose emphasis on the importance of asking questions and science saved his career, his relationships and maybe his life.
Literally referring to themselves as “The Jews,” the group was comprised of former New Yorkers who gathered each Thursday to focus on sobriety. But not without first eating.
“Whoever hosted it each week put together the most amazing spread — I don’t know if feeding a lot is very Jewish, but it definitely felt that way,” said Daniels. “And to be honest, they were the best meals I had the entire time I was there. Every Thursday they would work to out-do each other on the spread. It felt like a real celebration every time they got together, which set the atmosphere for the type of evening it was going to be.”
As a “recovering Mormon, I couldn’t do organized religion,” he said, adding that The Jews’ emphasis on the science behind recovery was for him one of the keys to getting well.
While The Jews were never “dismissive of any religious bent, they just knew there is also a scientific attachment to it, and that you can know and appreciate both; that you can know and understand science and have a spiritual life,” Daniels explained.
The approach followed by the Jewish group differed a lot from the Mormonism in which Daniels was raised.
“Mormonism is a lot based on faith,” he said. “There are parts that don’t line up, but you just accept these are the ways things are and things will be revealed as time goes on. But, I was so relieved when these guys were excited by places where things didn’t line up, because that meant we could delve into it, we could figure it out,” he said.
Through all his other attempts at sobriety, Daniels had not before been exposed to this method of recovery.
“Honestly, I don’t know what part of that is being Jewish, except that my anecdotal information is that they had a completely different take on it than I had encountered,” he said. “Since then, I’ve learned there are other organizations that are based in science. Don’t get me wrong. I still go to AA meetings. I have nothing against them, but why would we not make all the information we have possible out there available?”
“I’ve done the smart thing, which is when you appear on stage, hire a skinnier, funnier person to play you,” he said.
This is the second time the play has been produced, after a successful run in Lowell, Mass.
Daniels has had his writing produced and developed at Actors Theatre of Louisville, New York Stage and Film, Merrimack Repertory Theatre, Theatrical Outfit, and Dad’s Garage, and is the Artistic Director of Merrimack Repertory Theatre.
He is aiming to move “The White Chip” to an off-Broadway theater following its Pittsburgh run.
In the show — as well as in his life — Daniels had trepidation that getting sober might negatively affect his creativity, but those concerns turned out to be for naught.
“I was so worried that part of what made me a successful artist was alcohol, and that something would be lost, and 100 percent the opposite is true,” he said. “In fact, looking back at the shows I did while sloshed, I’m embarrassed by the work I did because there is a level of attention and details and long days that when you’re drinking, you can’t put into it.
“My work has never been better, and I’ve had more success in the six years since I got sober than I did in the 20 years before that,” he added.
Still, although he has not had a drink in more than six years, Daniels’ struggle with alcohol remains part of his life.
“I don’t think you ever get completely over it,” he said. “I don’t by any means have the same urges I had six years ago, but it is like something I have to continually work on to make sure it stays that way.” PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.