‘Happy Pills’ highlights a postapocolyptic world

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By Hannah Crooks

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When Alyssa Cokinis began writing her play Happy Pills a few years ago, she had no idea how greatly it would be reimagined by the time it hit the stage.

“I originally wrote the first scene a couple years ago,” she said. “And it was just between the main character and her former lover … And then it grew into this bulbous, huge, multilayered thing.”

After many, many stages of revision, Cokinis teamed with fellow University of Iowa student Wade Hampton to realize her dream of seeing Happy Pills performed on stage. Hampton, the director of the play, worked with Cokinis for almost 10 months before they chose cast members.

“She brought me on to start helping her with it in March,” Hampton said. “So now it’s grown and grown to the point where it has all these amazing elements, and our cast has just been absolutely fantastic.”

Happy Pills, with performances at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday in Theater Building Theater B, is set in the 1980s Cold War era after a nuclear attack on major cities in the United States. The nuclear fallout alters human brain chemistry, resulting in their lacking the ability to produce emotions. To combat this, the government creates pills that artificially generate feelings and emotions.

Fern (McKenna Goodman) is a young girl who, prior to the attack, ran away from her family. After the bombing, she was forced to find her way through a destroyed world on her own. As she battles with drug addiction and homesickness, she meets a traveler who goes by the name of Kerouac (Christina Sullivan).

The underlying themes, Cokinis said, relate to depression and addiction and how people cope.

“I often describe it as a postapocalyptic look at a critique of the pharmaceutical industry,” the playwright said. “And how more people get addicted to prescription drugs and painkillers than they do to drugs you find on the street.”

For Goodman, the most arduous part of the role has been to convincingly portray Fern’s drug addiction.

“I have never been addicted to anything, so I had to try to understand what it feels like to really need something and rely on it to survive,” she said. “She really feels like she cannot live without the pills.”

Cokinis wanted the play to have predominantly female characters who were complex rather than simply “nice.”

“This is exactly how roles for women should be,” she said. “They should be complicated. They shouldn’t be easy.”

She also enjoyed seeing the personalities brought to the stage by the cast.

“Christina brought a more fragile and gentler side than I imagined Kerouac would’ve had,” Cokinis said. “It made her more feminine but still androgynous, and it totally worked.”

Sullivan said Kerouac, a candid and grounded character, is exactly the type of role she also hopes to obtain in the future.

“She’s very smart but also very innocent because she’s been alone for so long,” she said. “Her personal journey is from being alone to caring about another human being.”

In a world in which the emotions people feel are extremely limited, caring about another person can be difficult.

Cokinis thought that this openness to empathy — as well as to the darker facets of humanity — sets Happy Pills apart from other productions grappling with similar topics.

“We’re not afraid to go weird, horrible lengths,” she said. “We’re not afraid to go there.”

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