TAMPA — A veteran of three tours of duty in Afghanistan returns home, her face disfigured in an explosion and dragging a stiff leg. Titusville, the Space Coast town where Lindsey Ferrentino set Ugly Lies the Bone, is reeling, too, from cutbacks to NASA and the end of the space shuttle program.
Jess, who is wrestling with long-term effects of her injuries and post-traumatic stress, tries to fit into her sister’s home and civilian life. Her pain resonates with uncomfortable closeness in a way audiences are not used to seeing. Innovocative Theatre, which performs at Stageworks Theatre, concludes its first season with the show, which debuted in New York in 2015 and has been an off-Broadway hit.
Marie-Claude Tremblay articulates Jess’ physical state fluently, struggling to get through exercises with a remote therapist who tries to help her create imagery that will counteract her chronic pain. This she does through virtual reality goggles, which produce the snowy mountaintops projected on stage. The one-act alternates periodically between her home setting and this inner world she is trying to reach, one in which she feels complete and whole.
She’s difficult and accepting, scarred and still holding onto the innocence of her high school years, even if now she can’t remember the details. Her battle experiences contrast with the nondescript home she shares with her sister Kacie, played sympathetically by Erin Foster, and sometimes Kacie’s boyfriend Kelvin, who we meet wearing his Dol-fan jersey and giggling at his own jokes and stories. Though this character is not the most complex role of the four in the cast, Jacob Barrens’ grasp of it might be the most complete, goofy and funny and unexpectedly sweet.
The biggest tests for Jess come in her interactions with Stevie, her high school boyfriend who has since married. Can she marry past and present? How will she handle a platonic date on the roof, as she and Stevie watch the last space shuttle launch?
The show has some gleaming scenes, including Jess a wordless sequence showing Jess getting dressed for outing, tenderly rekindling an idea of her own beauty as one might unwrap a bandage. The scenes between the sisters, fraught with contrast and the deep stresses felt by care givers, also speak to the heart.
There are problems, too. Tremblay shines brightest in the emotional range she expresses, but her performance is uneven. A sudden bark at Kelvin to "get out of my house," or breaking down in boo-hoo sobs during a virtual reality session depict a scarred veteran’s ragged emotional state, but they don’t make for believable acting.
At the other end of the proficiency scale, Jason Hoolihan invests Stevie with all of the spontaneity of a windup toy. His gestures and facial expressions seem replicable and rehearsed rather than bubbling up from within. Yet he captures Stevie’s humanity in pleasant moments, such as when he drops the happy-go-lucky facade and confesses that he wishes he could take care of Jess.
From the sound booth, Dawn Truax plays the only-sort-of-helpful therapist on the other end of the VR experience. That’s to be expected; Ferrentino seems to be saying most of the effort has to come from the patient. Still, it’s a little jarring as she slides between a human voice and one that sounds almost automated. She’s much better as the mom who emerges at the end of the play, providing long-delayed resolution for Jess as to whether her mother will recognize her.
This cast, and Tremblay in particular, seem more capable than this outing showed, which leaves me wondering what director and Innovocative founder Staci Sabarsky, a former middle-school drama teacher, was going for. Because despite those best moments and in contrast with the professional theater product it advertises itself to be, the show drifts from tedious to touching but is mostly just profoundly okay, right on up to an inconclusive, is-this-really-the-end ending.
Innovocative continues with issue-driven plays in 2019. Columbinus (Jan. 11-20), by Stephen Karam and PJ Paparelli, delves into the Columbine shootings. The 100 Dresses (Aug. 1-11), by Mary Hall Surface, confronts school bullying.
Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.