Ugly Lies the Bone is Lindsey Ferrentino’s Woodward/Newman award winning play at the Bloomington Playwrights Project. Jess, Christianna Nelson, has just returned from fourteen months in a Texas hospital. She was badly burned in an explosion on her third tour in Afghanistan and still faces months of rehabilitation.
The opening of the play is uncomfortable for Jess and the audience. What was familiar and comforting for her has changed. NASA is closing down and the thriving Florida town that she left for the army, like her body is just a memory of its former vitality. Her mother, now in a nursing home, no longer recognizes family members. Her school teacher sister’s boyfriend seems to be a grifting joker. The boy that she left behind who works in a gas station is avoiding her. Connecting with Ugly Lies the Bone takes a while. Playwright Ferrentino isn’t satisfied with easy answers or comfortable stereotypes.
Every move that Jess makes in Ugly Lies the Bone in any direction leads to pain in the eight to nine range. Things in the once familiar environment; sand, bright lights a shuttle lift off, are now triggers for post-traumatic stress. She’s undergoing therapy at the hands of a disembodied voice that seems to have little care and no pity. It’s a bleak picture, but perhaps with more truth for many than we’d like to imagine.
Therapy for Jess is the creation of an imaginary world, a sort of video game so involving and separate from her pain that it helps. She was badly burned in the flash of an explosion, so her world is a dim one, a silent place of cooling snow and ice. Jeffrey Small’s lighting design and Norbert Herber’s sound design do a masterful job of making the world seem real.
Christianna Nelson does a lovely job as the wounded Jess. I’ll remember the drama of the pain of her efforts to simply take off her shirt and trousers to get into a dress for a long time. If there is ever a King Lear made with a female lead Nelson is all ready for the scene of Lear’s rage against the storm. Jess is one prickly character. We’re inclined to cut her a lot of slack, but she stretches our empathy.
Tory Crow was a sympathetic figure as Jess’s caring sister. Scott Parnell as her boyfriend does a good job with a character who is at first quite unlikeable, but not quite deserving of Jess’s hostility and later less so. David Sheehan handles the tricky part of the boy Jess left for Afghanistan and his down spiral. Mary Carol Reardon was so effective as the disembodied voice of the therapist that it was a pleasant surprise to see her as the warm though addled mother.
The BPP’s production directed by David Anspaugh is a rough and demanding evening in the theatre, but it’s a rewarding one with a wonderfully moving epiphany of an ending at its dramatic climax.
Lindsey Ferrentino’s Ugly Lies the Bone continues through April 18.
You can find this review and an interview with director David Anspaugh on our web site at WFIU.ORG/ arts.
At the theatre for you, I’m George Walker .