Play Sheds Light on Addiction, Encourages Physicians to Screen Patients



WASHINGTON  – On the last night of the American Society of Addiction Medicine’s annual conference, four actors took the place of panelists in a ballroom that earlier had served as a space for discussing various aspects of addiction medicine, from drugs to alcohol to practice management.

The actors – Blythe Danner, Harris Yulin, Bryce Pinkham, and Sara Waisanen – sat in their chairs behind a long table facing a packed room of mostly addiction specialists and played out the third act of Eugene O’Neill’s "Long Day’s Journey Into Night."


Dr. Nora Volkow    

Mary Tyrone, the mother played by Ms. Danner, needs morphine and more of it, but it’s just for her arthritic hands. Her husband, James, played by Mr. Yulin, wallows in drinking. And the sons, one of whom (Mr. Edmund) was played by Mr. Pinkham, have their own issues.

But why do a play in front of a group of addiction specialists who see real-life versions of such scenarios day after day?

"Our goal is to elicit empathy through the felt experience of emotion," said Bryan Doerries, artistic director of the play and social impact theater company Outside the Wire ( "The play is a catalyst for a sincere and honest discussion.

"We want to convey a sense of moral obligation for people to apply [empathy] to their clinical practice to do better with patients. It’s a huge goal," Mr. Doerries said.

Like other plays that the company has produced, this performance of "Long Day’s Journey" was followed by a discussion – an emotional reaction from the audience, or, in some cases, a reaction to a single line in the play. Physicians were quick to line up behind the microphones in the room.

The play was set in 1912 and nearly 100 years later, much stigma and shame continue to be attached to addiction among the general public as well as the physician community, said the panelists who took the place of actors after the half-hour performance.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) approached Mr. Doerries’s theater company asking for a play that would elicit such a response.

The stigma still carried by addiction in the health care community has been nothing but deleterious, said Dr. Nora Volkow, director of NIDA, because physicians don’t screen for drug addiction. Also, if they find out that the patient has an addiction, "they won’t even approach it."

The performance was part of the NIDAMED ( program, which aims to educate physicians on the importance of screening their patients. The playbook was not about the play, but rather about how physicians can start a conversation with their patients about drug use. To learn more, visit