Theatrical work and panel discussion focus on MoCo’s opioid crisis

Peace Mountain Theatre Company is offering a double bill: a dramatic presentation and a panel discussion, both highlighting a dramatic and disturbing situation in Montgomery County as well as across the nation. 

The program, entitled “The Opioid Crisis: Not in My Backyard,” encompasses playwright Tom Kelly’s “The Empty Chair,” which takes place in a counseling center for recovering teens, after one of their peers has died of an overdose.

After the play, the discussion will feature a panel of experts comprised of a Montgomery County law enforcement officer, a recovering opioid addict, the father of a son who died of a fatal overdose, and the director of local behavioral health services provider Cornerstone Montgomery.

“We’re in the midst of a national emergency that affects every state, every income bracket, and virtually every age,” said Laurie Freed, artistic director of PMTC. “The White House, in October, declared a public health emergency but did not grant any additional money for the crisis ... More than 122 people die every day from syringes of heroin, gel caps of fentanyl, and an excess of oxycodone. It’s more addicting than heroin, and is easier to produce.”

Montgomery County isn’t immune to the scourge, she added. 

Cristen Stephansky, one of the cast members in “The Empty Chair,” knows the problem intimately. Her cousin suffered from drug addiction since childhood and overdosed on heroin at 14 – but thanks to the intervention of others, he survived.

“He’s clean now, but has to be on methadone,” she said. “Any kind of education you can give people about opioids is worthwhile.”

Stephansky plays Pearl, one of the recovering teens in Kelly’s play. 

The balance of the cast consists of: Marnie Kanarek, Michael Reilly, Bridget Lam, Leah Mazade, Ethan Moran, and Elyon Topolosky. 

In addition to the group leader in the counselor center, each character in the play – a few of whom are teen actors –is recovering from a different type of drug addiction.

“Each of us has a different type of behavior related to the drug’s chemistry – such as impulsiveness,” Stephansky said. “My character is addicted to sleeping pills and tranquilizers, and I tend to be someone calming down. I had also been homeless.”

Robert, a fellow addict, recommended that Pearl go to the counseling center – but ultimately was unable to save himself as he died from a drug overdose. 

A graduate of the National Conservatory of Dramatic Arts, Stephansky has performed frequently in local theaters and short films. 

Ironically, her first audition at PMTC was unsuccessful. But what struck her was that Freed wrote back to her. “Not every theater does,” Stephansky said.

Last year Freed did cast her as the aunt in PMTC’s production of Neil Simon’s “Lost in Yonkers.”

“She appears in only a few brief scenes, to make a point – the abuse she had suffered for her vocal deformity,” Stephansky said.

Much as the cast of “Lost in Yonkers” was enthused to take part in what some consider Simon’s best play, Stephansky is particularly gratified to appear in a program about the opioid crisis. 

Aside from providing information about drugs and the epidemic, “The experts can help people find the resources they need,” she said. 

It is likely Freed, who is directing “The Empty Chair,” will also moderate the panel discussion. There will be time after for audience members to tell their stories and share a Q&A with the panelists. 

“We had the same format last June to talk about bullying, and it worked well,” said Freed. “It became apparent that we needed to continue it. There are many issues, but this one is glaring.”

“The Empty Chair” begins at 4 p.m. on Sunday, April 8, followed by the panel discussion. Peace Mountain Theatre Company performs at Cong. Har Shalom, 11510 Falls Road, in Potomac. Admission is $10. For more information, visit the company’s website at


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