Playwright Michael Gorman has been writing about addiction since his oldest brother died of an overdose nearly 25 years ago. His latest play, “The Ahab Inside Me – A High Seas Blues Opera,” will be performed at the Colonial Theater in Augusta this weekend. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Playwright Michael Gorman first began writing about addiction shortly after his eldest brother, a commercial fisherman, died from a drug overdose.

That was nearly 25 years ago.

Since then, the opioid epidemic has gotten progressively more destructive and deadly. Last year alone, more than 600 people died from overdoses in Maine, the highest yearly total on record. Prior to 2014, the state had never lost more than 200 people in any one year.

Meanwhile, Gorman has kept writing. He has now completed a trilogy of plays about a topic that started as personal but has grown into something universal.

“I think I wrote that first play in response to (my brother’s) death. It was my own way of processing that loss,” said Gorman, who divides his time between New York and central Maine. “But I just kept mining that and adding to it and adapting it. I still work on other things, you know, but I keep coming to this.”

His latest musical, adapted from that trilogy and titled “The Ahab Inside Me – A High Seas Blues Opera,” will be on stage at the Colonial Theater in Augusta for three days this weekend, which coincides with the start of National Recovery Month.


The show is loosely based on Herman Melville’s classic “Moby-Dick,” with Captain Ahab’s obsessive pursuit of the titular whale that took his leg serving as a metaphor for addiction. As he has done in past shows, Gorman has cast people in recovery and recently out of prison.

But Gorman isn’t content with putting on his play and moving on. He has partnered with policy leaders and advocates to host a pair of panel discussions about the ongoing and seemingly intractable crisis with the hope that it might help save lives.

“I didn’t necessarily always view my plays as having an advocacy angle. I wanted them to just be plays and be judged on that merit,” he said. “But the pull was so strong. It seemed like this happened in my life for a reason.”

The production received grant funding from the Maine Arts Commission, which also will be involved in one of the panel discussions.

“There’s a need, I think, for the arts in general to recognize that the most impactful pieces are pieces that touch us in a way we understand and a way we can see,” said David Greenham, the commission’s director. “That’s sort of where the power of art lies. It helps us to talk about the challenging things we have to face.”

Still, when Gorman was looking for a place to stage his play, he wasn’t necessarily welcomed. A musical about addiction is a tough sell.


The Colonial Theater, located about a mile from the State House, where lawmakers and policy leaders have struggled to effectively combat the crisis, didn’t hesitate.

“Maybe our view is different, but I think we feel some social responsibility,” said Richard Parkhurst, an Augusta business owner and one of the theater’s board members. “They have to perform somewhere and have some opportunities. This is what the Colonial should be about.”


Kevin Gorman, the brother of playwright Michael Gorman, died of an overdose in 1998. Photo courtesy of Michael Gorman

Kevin Gorman had recently been released from prison and was returning to work as a commercial fisherman out of Gloucester, Massachusetts.

He stopped at a house to buy heroin and didn’t account for the low tolerance he’d developed while incarcerated. He died Oct. 13, 1998.

At that time, policymakers had not declared a drug crisis. Prescription opioids had only recently started to flood the market. Fentanyl, the powerful synthetic that shows up in so many overdoses today, wasn’t found outside hospitals.


Still, Michael Gorman said his brother’s death offered an early glimpse of drug policy failures that persist today. He only engaged in any criminal behavior to serve his addiction. He was never treated while behind bars. He wasn’t offered any services upon his release.

Gorman already had begun writing plays by then, making his debut in 1994 at the off-Broadway LaMaMa Experimental Theater Club in New York, where he has since staged more than a dozen productions and is currently the theater’s playwright in residence.

His brother’s death provided a different type of artistic inspiration.

The first play of his addiction trilogy, “Ultralight,” premiered at LaMaMa in 2000. He remembers meeting audience members from a nearby men’s shelter and from within the recovery community. He later took that play to Gloucester, the hardscrabble fishing community where his late brother worked, and met more people facing the same struggles his brother faced.

And he kept writing.

“This play – ‘The Ahab Inside Me’ – grew out of the trilogy, but I just kept mining it and adapting it,” he said. “It’s like jazz almost.”


Along the way, Gorman also founded The Forty Hour Club, a theatrical production company based in Rockland that combines performing arts with community involvement. A builder and renovator by trade, Gorman succeeds in giving his productions an authentic, collaborative feel that pairs with the often heart-wrenching subject matter.

Bruce Noddin, who founded the Maine Prisoner Re-entry Network to better assist people in recovery coming out of prison, saw Gorman and others perform a staged reading of one of his plays a few years back.

Playwright Michael Gorman talks with Liban Beynah, Andre VanPoelvoorde and Anthoney Davis, left to right, on the set of The Ahab Inside Me – A High Seas Blues Opera at the Colonial Theater in Augusta on Thursday, August 25, 2022. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

“I was sitting with some people who didn’t know anything about substance use, and when we got to the climax, we were all in tears,” he said. “I think Mike’s shows help me with this thing I’ve been trying to say to people for the last several years. We can’t have events where we beat people over the head. It doesn’t work. But if we can have events where folks come and they don’t really know it’s happening, they come out with an entirely different perspective, that’s how the stigma gets broken.”

Noddin has been promoting the latest production among members of the community he serves.

He said the opioid crisis has gotten to the point where people are almost resigned to seeing a certain amount of death. Any opportunity to bring conversations to people, even in non-traditional ways, is a good one.

“I’m a person in recovery,” he said. “If we can just get more people on that path before they are lost. I see it every day.”



Gorman said he’s seen the stigma of substance use lessened since his brother’s death.

But there is a long way to go.

His experience trying to find a place to perform “The Ahab Inside Me” was a good reminder.

“So many theaters wouldn’t put this on their stage,” he said.

On some level, that’s the downside of running a production company that doesn’t have a home theater.


Greenham, with the Maine Arts Commission, said there are performing arts venues – and audiences, for that matter – that want a more traditional production and experience. Many people come to the theater to escape reality and feel good.

“For us, it’s really about making sure the project that someone has put together has an approach that reflects the quality of the art and the artistry behind it, but we look at the potential for impact on the community, too,” he said. “Obviously, they have a clear sense of the community that they are talking about.”

Andre VanPoelvoorde, Anthoney Davis and Liban Beynah, left to right, listen to playwright Michael Gorman as he talks them through parts of the play “The Ahab Inside Me – A High Seas Blues Opera” at Colonial Theater in Augusta. The three men participate in Augusta’s recovery community and will appear in the play, which is loosely based on Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick,” using Captain’s Ahab’s obsession with the great white whale to tell a modern tale of addiction and its consequences. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Greenham said there is certainly risk in staging plays around challenging topics, especially ones that might hit close to home.

“But there is a bigger risk in ignoring it,” he said. “When people really sit with a topic and let it in, the risk is lessened, and the opportunity for actual conversation exists. We have seen this.”

For Gorman, he wants that conversation to be about harm reduction. He said the increased availability of the overdose-reversing drug Narcan has been monumental. Dead people can’t get into recovery, after all.

But his work also explores the idea of invisibility – the idea that there is an entire population that exists outside the lens of much of society. People with substance use disorder often fall into this group. So do people who are imprisoned.


Part of his production brings that to light. Captain Ahab’s crew, Fedallah and the Phantoms, represent the invisible and serve as the musical’s chorus. Gorman and his team cast non-actors and members of the recovery community in those roles.

Parkhurst, the local business owner and theater board member, said he’s been fortunate that no one in his family has been lost to addiction, but he’s seen good friends lose children.

“It’s a true tragedy,” he said. “We’re missing something in life that is fulfilling enough that we don’t turn to things like this to escape.”

“I really feel with the production that they are putting on, if we get two people to respond positively and make change, that’s a win.”

Gorman understands why some theaters didn’t want to host his play, and he understands if some audiences might be turned off, too.

“Sometimes, it’s not always things that people want to see but what they need to see,” he said. “And there is a real beauty in that.”

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