Published November 14, 2016 in the Des Moines Register by Don McLeese.
Can you piece a shattered life back together?
Such is the challenge facing Jess, as she sits in a darkened room, fumbling with virtual-reality goggles. A disembodied female voice over a speaker provides her only lifeline, as it asks her questions and gives directions. Three tours of Afghanistan and a near-fatal explosion have left her broken in body and spirit. She needs to ease her pain and to find some reason to live.
Thus opens “Ugly Lies the Bone,” a highly acclaimed play by the award-winning Lindsey Ferrentino, making its Iowa debut in a taut, emotionally wracking production at StageWest. Playing Jess, Kim Haymes offers subtlety and nuance, in a role that depends more on what she can’t say (anything much beyond terse responses tinged with gallows humor) and can’t do (move, without excruciating pain).
The play takes place during her homecoming, after more than a year of hospitalization. But the home she had left in Titusville, on Florida’s “Space Coast,” no longer exists. It was also the playwright’s home, and the production credits describe the time as “the end of NASA’s shuttle program, the end of an era.”
Her mother has herself been hospitalized, with worsening dementia. Her sister, Kacie (an ebullient Jessica Elwell), is trying to make the best of life with a new, hapless boyfriend. Then there’s Stevie (Adam Beilgard), the boyfriend that Jess had left behind, who has lost his job as a NASA flunky and is now a convenience store clerk. He is also married, though not all that happily.
Since a play is something of a virtual reality, it took awhile for this one to gel for this reviewer. The sisters initially didn’t seem much like sisters, the boyfriends, present and past, didn’t seem much like boyfriends. It’s hard to see why Jess would have any attraction to a slug like Stevie, then or now, unless he’s there to show why she needed to get away or what little awaits her return.
Yet, the initial lack of chemistry in this production, directed by John Graham, somehow corrects itself. At a pivotal point about halfway through, the voice over the speaker (Becky Scholtec, who also plays the mother) introduces Jess to her new virtual-reality paradise, and Jess achieves a wordless liberation, in which she’s somehow able to lift her arms where there was previously immobilizing pain. These goggles are plainly better than morphine; they signal a path forward.
The challenge then becomes how to assimilate the lessons of this virtual reality into whatever passes for real life. As Jess becomes more of a singular character, less of a PTSD stereotype, so do those around her seem more rounded in their relationships. Particularly effective is the irrepressible Shane Donegan as Kacie’s boyfriend. He’s the only one who didn’t know Jess before she left, and he adds a perspective that proves crucial. Perhaps he isn’t the simply the conniving malingerer Jess has suspected of living off her sister; perhaps his “positivity” doesn’t make him a simple-minded buffoon.
The play lasts only about 75 minutes (with no intermission), but at the end the audience feels like it has been through its own war, that it now shares some of those burns and scars that have disfigured Jess’ face. Exchanging her walker for a cane, Jess has taken some small but significant steps, and there is no looking back. Where once she heard triggers all around her, she now sees just the faintest glimmer of hope.