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When we first glimpse Jess, the central figure of Lindsey Ferrentino‘s new drama, she’s a disturbing sight: Her head covered by a bandana, her face littered with burns, and her limbs contorted by pain, she’s a portrait in suffering. But as Ugly Lies the Bone makes powerfully clear, her scarred physical appearance pales in comparison to the psychic pain within.
How Jess comes to deal with that pain is the subject of this play, receiving its world premiere via Roundabout Theatre Company’s Underground strand for emerging artists. Played with a searing intensity by Mamie Gummer, the character well represents the thousands of veterans who have come home bearing the scars of war.
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Not that in the case of Jess home is much to come back to. After serving three tours of duty, during the last of which she was nearly killed by an IED, Jess discovers that her Florida Space Coast town of Titusville has been decimated by the suspension of NASA’s shuttle program. Her schoolteacher sister Kacie (Karron Graves) is barely making ends meet; Kacie’s boyfriend, Kelvin (Haynes Thigpen), is contentedly living on work disability after busting his knee; and Jess’ former lover Stevie (Chris Stack), now married, works as a gas station clerk.
In an attempt to alleviate her constant debilitating pain, Jess takes part in a new form of therapy using virtual reality, in which, prompted by an unseen voice (Caitlin O’Connell), she dons a headset and blissfully imagines herself in a wintry setting. She also attempts to reconnect with Stevie, inviting him to watch a rocket launch from the roof of her house. But the awkward reunion turns disastrous when the blasting light and booming sound trigger an intense post-traumatic stress flashback.
Ferrentino’s writing is deeply felt and often touching. But the play, running a brief 75 minutes, feels underdeveloped and strangely thin. The supporting characters need to be more fully fleshed-out, with some of them, such as the buffoonish Kelvin (much would-be humor is derived from his outfits, including capri pants that he defends as “long shorts”), registering as little more than stereotypes. The interpersonal relationships, including those of Jess and both the mixed-signal-sending Stevie and her dementia-addled mother (O’Connell), are only sketchily developed. This is the rare new play that actually feels too short.
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Under the direction of Patricia McGregor, the drama also suffers from the skimpy production values of the developmental theater, although it’s churlish to complain when tickets cost a mere $25. The sets are threadbare, and Gummer’s extensive makeup is less than convincing when seen in such close-up conditions.
But the work does have truly affecting moments, such as when Jess plaintively asks Stevie, “Do you remember what I looked like?,” prompting him to deliver more than a perfunctory response. Or when, dropping all her emotional defenses, she happily lies in the arms of her loving but diminished mother, who thinks her daughters are still in grammar school. It’s in these scenes, wonderfully played by Gummer, that the character’s true inner beauty shines through.
Cast: Karron Graves, Mamie Gummer, Caitlin O’Connell, Chris Stack, Haynes Thigpen
Director: Patricia McGregor
Playwright: Lindsey Ferrentino
Set designer: Tim Brown
Costume designer: Dede M Ayite
Lighting designer: Jiyoun Chang
Sound designer: Jessica Paz
Projection designer: Caite Hevner Kemp
Presented by Roundabout Theatre Company
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