ST. CLOUD — When local playwright Anthony Schrock started writing his latest show, a nagging question bothered him: How many more versions of "A Christmas Carol" can there be?
The Charles Dickens story, penned in the 1840s, has spun hundreds of adaptations by way of books, plays and films, including the holiday favorites, "The Muppet Christmas Carol" and "Scrooged."
But instead of the usual tropes warning Ebenezer Scrooge of his greed, Schrock's play focuses on trauma and addiction. And the three ghosts who visit Scrooge to show him the past and the present — and warn of the future if he doesn't change — are reinterpreted to highlight the main character's struggle with opiates.
"Her pain is old and deep, and her need for the drug is getting worse so she's seeing things," Schrock said of Mary Ebenezer, the show's female protagonist who survived an accident that killed her husband three decades earlier. After the accident, Ebenezer turned to laudanum, a medicinal mixture of opium and alcohol.
Now that Schrock had his fresh adaptation, he worried if it would be relevant. He quickly found his answer when his partner, Katy Boyer, read the script, which prompted a confession from Boyer that Schrock never saw coming: "I relapsed."
"I am a person who has struggled on and off — mostly on — with substance use disorder with meth and alcohol for a lot of my life," Boyer said during a recent rehearsal for the play, which is titled, "Ebenezer's Dry Goods & Pharmaceuticals."
Performances run through Sunday and Nov. 17-19 in the Holy Angels Auditorium at St. Cloud's Cathedral High School.
Boyer, 45, said after years of addiction, she found help in a recovery program in 2015. But in 2020, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a mastectomy. After surgery, she started taking a non-opioid pain medication and continued its use for months.
"Nobody knew. I was feeling really disconnected from my life and realizing I was in trouble and really feeling ashamed," she said. "Then he read me the story, and it reminded me how serious addiction gets for me.
"I lost everything to addiction. I lost my children to addiction. I haven't seen them for 11 years. I've been homeless. This story helped remind me. I was able to say to him, 'I relapsed.'"
Schrock said he had no inkling Boyer was struggling until she told him.
"That made me realize that what I was writing could be more than entertainment," he said. "We want to start conversations."
Schrock, 49, grew up performing in community theater in St. Cloud. He moved away from the area for two decades and when he returned, started working as a set designer for Waite Park-based GREAT Theatre. His play is being produced by Central MN Theatre Company.
Because of the graphic depiction of drug use, the play is not recommended for audience members younger than 15. And because the content is heavy, a St. Cloud-based trauma therapy practitioner will lead audience conversations after each performance.
"Our culture, especially in this area, is sort of steeped in this Midwest stoicism of 'Don't talk about it,'" Boyer said. "That's damaging."
Boyer said she now feels better than she's felt in a long time. Her recovery journey includes meditation, therapy, medical cannabis and ketamine therapy. Boyer is also portraying one of the spirits in the show — a mother who lost her child — which is proving to be another form of therapy, she said.
"The only way to not be stuck [in grief] is to experience it and have it pass through — don't resist or suppress it but don't lean into it, either," she said. "This play keeps giving me more opportunities to do that."
Schrock and Boyer hope the audience is inspired to start conversations of their own about trauma and addiction.
"It's complicated, and it's painful," Boyer said, "but if we don't talk about it, it's deadly."