By Anne-Allegra Bennett (@aab_artiste)
“Beauty is but skin deep, ugly lies the bone. Beauty dies and fades away, but ugly holds its own.”
As the lights slowly fade to black on the audience, the emotional lyrics of When Johnny Comes Marching Home echo through the silence, drawing all into a different life and reality. Through the darkness a loud voice commands “open your eyes,” as a ray of light focuses on the fragile yet strong Jess standing center stage. The powerful opening not only directs Jess to open her eyes to face what is before her, but also pulls the audience into her life and story.
Making its world premiere in Roundabout Theatre’s Underground Black Box Theatre, Ugly Lies The Bone (written by Lindsey Ferrentino) follows Jess (Mamie Gummer) as she returns to her life back in her hometown in Florida after serving three tours in Afghanistan. Jess moves back into her mom’s house with her sister Kacie (Karron Graves), and is faced with the task of overcoming her physical and emotional pain caused by severe burns suffered in the service. Battling with PTSD, Jess works on re-adjusting to civilian life, and struggles to reacquaint herself with family and friends who have not seen or been through what she experienced.
Enduring many rounds of intense physical therapy, Jess must learn how to work through the pain to heal her injuries that are both physical and emotional. Jess finds herself butting heads with Kacie’s boyfriend Kelvin (Haynes Thigpen), and has emotional encounters with her former companion Stevie (Chris Stack). As she struggles to find how she fits into her former life, Jess works with a virtual reality video game at her therapy sessions, where her therapist (Caitlin O’Connell) keeps herself at a distance and never shows who she is.
Ugly Lies The Bone is an interesting look at how much trauma can change family and friends, and how deeply it can affect one’s life. A wonderful take on all that one must do in order to overcome the obstacles in their path, and how to persevere down the road. It also provides a fascinating look at the use of virtual reality technology in helping those in need improve their situations and how it may speed up their rehabilitation.
It’s a long and challenging road to recovery, and the characters sometimes don’t know how to help one another, which rings true to life. The story is realistic, and touches upon many different emotions. Haynes Thigpen and Chris Stack provide some more light-hearted and comedic moments, while bringing out their individual characters. Mr. Thigpen plays Kelvin as one who means well and wants to help Jess out, but doesn’t know how to connect to her no matter what he does. He’s a good foil to Gummer’s Jess, and her dry sense of humor plays off of his enthusiasm nicely. Mr. Stack as convenience store worker Stevie constantly puts his foot in his mouth in how he responds to Jess, but he tries to make things right. His realistic responses connect with the audience, and to the possibilities of facing awkward situations with someone one used to know, but who is no longer sure what to say since so much has changed.
Karron Graves plays the caring and well-meaning big sister, portraying her with love and affection. Ms. Graves smoothly transitions from protecting those she cares about, to moments of frustration when things seem to be falling apart. She’s the glue that holds everything together. Caitlin O’Connell as the Voice is both intriguing and mysterious. All that is heard is what she sounds like from a distance, without ever seeing her when she works with Jess at her therapy sessions. Part of the fascination in seeing the changes Jess goes through along the way. Also mysterious in that one really doesn’t know much about her, even though she and Jess work together over the course of many therapy appointments. She does everything by the book, and it’s almost as if she weren’t always human in how she responds at times. Tough but caring. (Ms. O’Connell also plays the role of the mother of Jess and Kacie).
Mamie Gummer as Jess fully embodies the character with a wide range of depth and understanding. It’s easy to feel her pain as she tries to adjust to her daily life. She takes on the physical characteristics of Jess so believably that the struggles of moving around and living life normally are felt with intensity. She moves how one would if they were in excruciating pain, and her facial expressions also bring out the pain, hope, and determination in following through with what she must do to get better. She goes between moments of pain and anger, to moments with slight hints of humor and temporary respite from the discomfort she’s in. Ms. Gummer takes on the title role so fully, and plays Jess as if she really does suffer a great deal both emotionally and physically.
The entire cast plays off of one another so well, and their connections and relationships on the stage are moving, and quite solid. They have created a strong bond, and it’s incredible to see how well they interact and respond to each other. They really react and listen to what’s going on. The sets, props, and costumes compliment the characters in relation to their needs, and in furthering the story. There is an intent behind each change, and in how the lighting and sound effects are used.
The creative team is made up of Tim Brown (sets), Dede Ayite (costumes), Jiyoun Chang (lighting), Jessica Paz (sound), Caite Hevner Kemp (projections), Vincent T. Schicchi and Thomas Denier Jr. (prosthetics), and Cookie Jordan (wigs). Lindsey Ferrentino is the playwright of Ugly Lies The Bone, and the production includes Patricia McGregor (director), Sarah Elizabeth Ford (production stage manager), and Joseph Heaton (stage manager).
Ugly Lies The Bone is playing a limited engagement through November 22 at The Black Box Theatre in the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre at 111 West 46th Street. All tickets are $25 General Admission, and may be purchased at roundabouttheatre.org, or by calling 212-719-1300. Performances are Tuesday through Sunday at 7pm, with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 1:30pm. The show runs about 75 minutes without an intermission.