Agony and magic11/18/2016
The excitement that lights up “Ugly Lies the Bone” takes many forms, but it all starts with the script. Playwright Lindsey Ferrentino, though still in her 20s, has already picked up several awards and armloads of critical praise. She keeps every encounter unsettled, yet entertaining, so that the laugh lines carom wildly off the ones that twist a knife.
Such tension and surprise percolate throughout “Bone,” Ferrentino’s latest, which brings the disfigured and traumatized veteran Jessica home to Florida’s “Space Coast” — itself crippled by the end of the space shuttle program. Jess’ therapy proves engrossing, since it often leaves her alone at center stage in virtual reality (VR) goggles. A new treatment proven useful for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the goggles take patients to a soothing alternative universe, where they learn to switch off their pain. In the real world, however, Jess unearths fresh agony. Her mother is off her head, her sister is overwhelmed, and the men in both women’s lives seem like children.
Downtown, protagonist’s challenges are embodied in Nick Amundsen’s set, all jagged gray boards and ladders missing rungs. The one intact wall — the living-room wall — takes a whacking from both sisters in time. Things are forever on the verge of violence, as Director John Graham sees the play. The opening minutes set Jess wincing and gasping as she struggles with injured muscles and newly-grafted skin. Later, she tumbles into a flashback, and we’re taken to the battlefield, the stage slashed with red and erupting with noise, another coup for Jim Trenberth and Josh Jepson, the StageWest team on lights and sound.
All that would mean nothing, however, without a gifted player like Kim Chelf-Haymes in the lead. A Chicago transplant, Haymes is one of a handful of actors recently relocated from bigger cities. Her credits included meaty fare like “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Here, she never misses a trick. Her hobbling had me wanting to rush up and take her arm, and her grimacing appeared so deeply ingrained that, when the VR therapy at last got her to smile, she lit up the Kum & Go like a one-women tech crew.
Jessica Elwell, in the role of stay-at-home sister Kacie, naturally comes across with less fire. Still, when she lashes out at Jess’ former fiancé, hunched over her purse to haul out the medicines her sister requires, you see that Kacie has a warrior’s strength all her own.
But perhaps what most makes the production a triumph is the humanity it brings to its two leading men. Two losers, it would seem: Jess’ ex and Kacie’s boyfriend. The former even wears a jester’s cap, part of his convenience-store uniform. Yet both Adam Beilgard and Shane Donegan bring off moments of terrific sympathy. When Beilgard confesses how small he feels compared to Jess, he makes a lovely tongue-tied mess of it. When Donegan finds himself tricked into a near-naked showdown, he’s like a creature out of a fairy tale, a coach potato transformed into the man who cannot tell a lie. Then again, maybe StageWest is the fairy tale, delivering magic to our door.
“Ugly Lies the Bone,” StageWest
Kum & Go Theater, Des Moines Social Club