“It takes a brave playwright to saddle her work with the less than enticing title ‘Ugly Lies the Bone.’ The play itself, about a severely wounded war veteran attempting to put together a new life, confirms that Lindsey Ferrentino is a writer of dauntless conviction.”Charles Isherwood, The New York Times
It takes a brave playwright to saddle her work with the less than enticing title “Ugly Lies the Bone.” The play itself, about a severely wounded war veteran attempting to put together a new life, confirms that Lindsey Ferrentino is a writer of dauntless conviction. This bracing drama from the Roundabout Underground program, starring a superb Mamie Gummer as that damaged vet, confronts an achingly topical issue with hardheaded honesty and admirable compassion.
Jess (Ms. Gummer) has returned to her Florida home from a third tour in Afghanistan, enduring intense pain from injuries and the many surgeries that followed. We can read how much she suffers, moment by moment, from the grimaces and winces that flicker across Ms. Gummer’s face.
Jess’s psyche is under severe stress, too, although her inherent strong will comes through clearly in her sardonic responses to her sister Kacie (Karron Graves), whose relentless attempts to cheer and distract only provoke irritation. Kacie’s bubbly chatter about her new boyfriend, Kelvin (played with lumbering, sweet cluelessness by Haynes Thigpen), meets with sarcasm and raised eyebrows, although Jess has but one eyebrow to raise.
Ms. Ferrentino alternates scenes depicting Jess’s uneasy transition to her “old” life with those set at a facility where she receives a kind of virtual reality therapy. Putting on goggles that cause her pain (“It took three surgeries to give me back my eyelid”), Jess is encouraged to move her limbs while watching an avatar move through a snowy wilderness. The choice of clime is hers; she finds it soothing.
Despite the forthright depictions of Jess’s suffering and frustration, “Ugly Lies the Bone,” directed by Patricia McGregor with careful attention to subtle changes in texture, retains a certain buoyancy. Ms. Gummer deftly draws out all the wryness in Jess’s personality, even as she makes clear that it’s often gallows humor born of her traumatic experience. Commenting on how Kacie, too, no longer resembles the glowing beauty of her high school years, she cracks, “At least I have an excuse.”
“Lindsey Ferrentino makes movingly clear how Jess’s experience has scarred her family, too. “
Lindsey Ferrentino makes movingly clear how Jess’s experience has scarred her family, too. We learn from Kelvin that Kacie still cries herself to sleep, the kind of detail Kacie, whose anxious care for her sister is evident in Ms. Graves’s excellent chipper-antsy performance, would be too sensitive to share.
Their mother, unhappily, has dementia and no longer lives at home. Jess resists Kacie’s attempts to have her visit. We can guess at the reason: fear that her mother will react with horror or confusion at her daughter’s appearance or, worse, will not know her at all.
Yes, I know, more cheery detail! But unflinching portraits like the ones Ms. Ferrentino draws of the transitions of wounded veterans back to society are hard to come by outside journalism. The play is also notable for its focus on a female combat veteran; as women are increasingly represented in the armed forces, their stories are rightly drawing more attention (as in “Grounded,” recently at the Public Theater with Anne Hathaway) in works that explore how their experiences are both similar to and different from those of their male counterparts
Jess does slowly make progress with her novel therapy, which is based, a note indicates, on stress-reducing techniques actually being used on veterans. As the silken voice (Caitlin O’Connell) urges her to enter the imaginary landscape, her movements gradually become more fluid, and her initial testiness subsides. (We see projections of snowy mountainscapes, by Caite Hevner Kemp, on a screen pulled in front of the stage.)
The play’s title, incidentally, comes from Albert Einstein: “Beauty is but skin deep, ugly lies the bone. Beauty dies and fades away, but ugly holds its own.”
By the end of the play we have long since ceased to see Jess as “ugly” (if we ever did), but we do leave with the confident sense that, despite the setbacks and the uncertain future, this determined, hardheaded young woman will quite probably find a way to hold her own — and then some.