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Ugly Lies the Bone

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Mamie Gummer
Photo by Joan Marcus

Recovery takes on myriad meanings in Lindsey Ferrentino's beautiful, richly textured new play Ugly Lies the Bone, which is now playing at the Black Box Theatre at the Herald and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre in a Roundabout Underground production. The body. The heart. The soul. The economy. Family bonds. Heck, the very land itself, which has been subjected to a different kind of surprise shock. Everyone is suffering, everyone is improving (albeit some more quickly than others), and everyone is at the threshold. But how to deal with these experiences and what the significance of them all is, in a life where it seems the most basic concepts are incommunicable, makes this a play that reaches further and speaks far more deeply than its straightforward dialogue may first lead you to think.

In order for us to understand and appreciate the potential cures to such ills, however, Ferrentino must first show us the ailments. The most obvious are those afflicting Jess (Mamie Gummer), an army soldier who was caught by an IED on her third and final tour in Afghanistan and must now live with the repercussions: a limp that requires use of a walker, an arm she can't lift, a neck she can't turn, and the constant terror of post-traumatic stress disorder. Though she's part of a program that uses virtual reality to flood the senses with stimuli that (hopefully) cause the patient to forget their physical torment (a treatment Ferrentino says is based on a real, similar game called Snow World), in trying to reintegrate herself into her everyday "real" life, the pain is no so easily salved.

Her hometown of Titusville, Florida, has been ravaged by the dismantling of NASA's shuttle program, which means most of her friends have moved away and many businesses have closed. Her mother has been placed into a home for dementia, and it's unclear whether she'll ever emerge again. As a result, Jess's sister, Kacie (Karron Graves), is left to look after the house (the just-right, claustrophobically homey set is by Tim Brown), often with the help of her boyfriend Kelvin (Haynes Thigpen), who busted his knee and is now living on government welfare checks (and grows a straggly beard so won't look "too employable"). Even Jess's one-time boyfriend, Stevie (Chris Stack), has moved on: After losing two jobs at NASA (first filing papers in the control room, then cooking in the cafeteria), he's found counter work at a gas station—and married someone else.

Karron Graves and Mamie Gummer
Photo by Joan Marcus

Story-wise, Ugly Lies the Bone doesn't get more extensive than that, but it doesn't need to. This small number of pieces are all Ferrentino needs to craft a powerful but brief (a scant 70 minutes) evening of theatre that tracks Jess at every torturous step from her welcome-home party to the completion of America's final space shuttle mission. Ferrentino gently but cagily shows us how Jess's perspective tints her view of what's happening around her, only to twist the details later to demonstrate that perhaps we didn't know as much as we thought we did after all. (One of her most clever devices involves introducing plot elements that Jess convinces us will take us one place, only for us to end up somewhere quite different once others have had their say.)

The final product is an uncommonly compelling depiction of not merely recovery, but also repentance and renewal, with an emphasis on how difficult it is—all without either cloying or exaggerating. Ferrentino doesn't shy from showing us the reciprocal relationships at play; how others affect Jess is just as important as how Jess affects them, and in some cases more so, because, as we come to learn, her being trapped inside herself is a big part of what's holding her back. The therapy sessions, which alternate with the scenes set elsewhere, extensively use projections (by Caite Hevner Kamp), but are triumphant and affecting because of the true hope and potential they represent. Jess pulls us into her constructed fantasy and we, like the people around her, need to pull her back out of hers.

None of this would be possible without Gummer, who's hands-down magnificent in the part. It's not just the physicality she's nailed (though she certainly has; Vincent T. Schicchi and Thomas Denier Jr.'s makeup is outstanding, but secondary), but the internal desolation that captivates us. Jess's eternal stare into the distance, rarely making direct eye contact even with those she's closest to, silently signals that she's still in a far off place, struggling to stay alive under very different conditions. Gummer lets us see how that Jess, the one before the accident, and the one she is now are all constantly battling for position within her, and that keeping her other impulses under control is at least as difficult as enduring the wounds that have transformed fully a third of her body.

Beneath all that, there's still more: the soul of a tender woman longing for expression (she was a kindergarten teacher, and blanches at the idea that she condescend to work in Kelvin's family's pizza restaurant), the natural protective instincts that border on smothering in the wrong circumstances, and the simple disconnection from the place and people who were always for her a constant. Gummer seamlessly blends all this into a portrait of a woman who's not allowed to outwardly embody the completeness that exists inside. You feel the strain with every word, every interaction, just as you do the jolts of crippling discomfort that accompany Jess's every step. And all this perfectly sized for the tiny space, without a hint of dishonesty or unnecessary adornment. This is as good as acting gets.

About the only flaw of Patricia McGregor's production is that too often the other actors don't match Gummer in complexity. Graves showers her character with a palpable frustration born of love for her sister, but moves a bit sluggishly between the exasperated Kacie and the attentive one. Stack's Stevie is a fine example of a fallen man, battered and bruised and healing in the wrong ways, but unveils few hints of the remarkable man Jess once fell in love with. And Thigpen pushes the "itinerant loser" aspect of Kelvin too far; there's not much of a clue of what about him so attracts Kacie that she's willing to trust him with all her money at a time they have none to lose. Only Caitlin O'Connell, who provides the voice of the unseen doctor pushing Jess to betterment, matches Gummer layer for layer.

Jess and the doctor are working together to build new worlds, one virtual and one actual, in which Jess will no longer have to live in agony, and part of the joy of Ugly Lies the Bone is witnessing their construction from the component pieces of Jess's shattered being. Yet you can't lose yourself in the process; Gummer thrusts you into it so you're aware of every new impact, whether it stems from lost love, a disintegrating mother, flashbacks to wartime, or, eventually, the sweet sensation of pain dissipating. It's not an easy journey, and the distress, despondency, and tears Jess must face will be yours as well. But they're making her whole again. So don't be surprised if, when it's all over, you find that her transformation and exhilaration are every bit yours as well.

Ugly Lies the Bone
Through November 22
Roundabout Theatre Company Black Box Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 West 46th Street between 6th and 7th Avenue
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