New play looks at an addict’s impact close to home

Patrick Dunn
Special to The Detroit News

Betty Riggs’ new musical “A Mother’s Heart” is about a family torn apart by drugs — a subject all too real to the Livonia-based playwright.

Riggs also directs the play, which will debut Sunday at Royal Oak Music Theatre. She says the storyline was based in part on interviews with several drug addicts and their families. One of them was Riggs’ own family member, who went through rehab and interventions multiple times but didn’t sober up until a chilling incident involving her 7-year-old daughter.

“Their little girl found a (crack) rock in the carpet and picked it up and said, ‘Mommy, look,’ ” Riggs says. “It frightened our family member because she said that (her daughter) could have eaten it, because it looks like rock candy.”

In crafting her own narrative about the consequences of addiction, Riggs’ attention drifted more toward an addict’s affected family members. Her play focuses on the characters of Liz, Joe and Brittany, the mother, father and young daughter of a crack addict named Tracy, rather than putting the spotlight on Tracy herself.

Riggs says that decision was a reaction to pop-culture portrayals of addiction like A&E’s reality show “Intervention.”

“You always see the addict,” she says. “They follow the addict instead of following the family that is going through the problem, going through the struggle of fighting for their family member, going through the struggle of picking up the pieces.”

“A Mother’s Heart” was the first creative work Riggs completed upon returning home to Michigan after a 20-year stint working in Hollywood. Riggs originally began working in theater when she was recruited to be a production runner on “The Steve Harvey Show.” She went on to work as a production secretary on movies including “The Fast and the Furious” and “The Scorpion King.”

Throughout her time in California, Riggs also found time to write and direct her own independent films, at the encouragement of mentors including “Furious” director Rob Cohen. But when she moved home to be closer to her aging mother she decided to return to theater, the medium she calls her “home.”

However, Riggs also wanted to challenge herself by making “A Mother’s Heart” her first musical. Riggs hired Detroit musician Jomar Harris, who had previously composed music primarily for church productions, to write music and lyrics for the show. The play is described as a “gospel musical,” but Harris says the instrumentation is restrained.

“You want to focus on the character,” he says. “We wanted to avoid that so the focus could be on the character and not on a musical performance.”

The strongly character-driven story has proven affecting even to some cast members. Clinton Township resident Peggy James, who plays Liz, says her character’s resilient and forgiving attitude toward the character of Tracy made her question decisions she made in her real life with a relative who was addicted to crack.

“What if I really would have hung in there with her and got her help instead of just throwing it away?” James says. “I don’t know what she’s doing now... It’s really stretching me into an area that’ll make you check yourself.”

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer.

‘A Mother’s Heart’

7 p.m. Sun.

Royal Oak Music Theatre

318 W. Fourth, Royal Oak

Tickets: $36.50

(248) 399-2980