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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
Ugly Lies the Bone

Do you know what Paradise looks like?— The Voice
Christianna Nelson
Women in full combat gear and body armor are just another one of the firsts in the current American cycle of war — one that seems far removed from everyday life here. Ugly Lies the Bone by Lindsey Ferrentino, currently at Shakespeare and Co.'s Bernstein Theatre, examines the impact of a vet's homecoming to a country that seems oblivious to the psychic and physical suffering of our returning warriors.
Jess (Christianne Nelson) returns to her modest Florida home after three tours of duty in Afghanistan; it is the third that proved unlucky as she suffered life altering injuries from an IED. She drags along in her walker with a wince or terrible grimace at every step; we have time to examine the skin on the right side of her face which is blotched by the aftermath of third degree burns and skin grafts. Her rebuilt scalp, covered by a scarf makes it plain that Jess has a long way to go to rejoin the world she left behind. She spends her days hiding at home or attending therapy sessions and it is obvious that her psychological underpinnings are as stressed and damaged as her physical manifestations.

As her chirpy sister Kasie (Rory Hammond) buzzes about inviting Jess to chat about broccoli, vacations and her doofy new boyfriend Kelvin (Dylan Chalfy) who is trying to get on disability for a knee problem, Jess's sarcastic and mean-spirited replies indicate that she is in no mood to be jollied back to her old life. Kelvin's clueless banter, "I drive, I cook, I'm not on Viagra, I'm a catch," and slacker mentality act as a foil to Jess's intensity. She eyes him suspiciously and critically probably measuring him against the disciplined life she and her military comrades have embraced.

Jess tries to reach out to her ex- boyfriend who works at a gas station convenience store since his layoff from the NASA shuttle program, which is about to launch its last flight. Stevie (Hamish Allan-Headley) has married but there is still something between them, and Jess grapples with this dilemma. She rejected Stevie's relationship to pursue the purpose-driven life of a combatant doing something with meaning; does she really want to return to what she had already escaped?

The rehabilitation process that is at the heart of the play is an experimental virtual reality program. Jess, through the use of an unseen voice/therapist (Ariel Bock) utilizes goggles and enters a program that transports her to a beautiful cold climate. It creates her avatar, able to bend, flex and run while diminishing the chronic pain of her real life as the voice intones, "Modern casualties require modern panaceas."

Jess is conflicted — she has returned to a mother with Alzheimer's disease who will not recognize her, a former boyfriend with a wife and marginal aspirations and a sister who has the career that she, herself, once anticipated. But how can she be a teacher when loudness, sand and crowds cause an intense post-traumatic stress flashback even though the voice urges her to "Move forward"? How can she hope to recover when her body and mind are so tormented?

Though the story is brutal and familiar, Ferrentino reinforces the view that the experiences of battle-scarred veterans cannot be diminished by platitudes and homecoming parties. The play has a few problems that dilute the story of Jess's ordeals. The playwright needs to create a soul-searing intensity which is as horrifying for the audience as for the survivor. Much of Jess's emotion is controlled by the script. She should be much angrier and disturbed than is portrayed. Her sister Kasie is also too saintly. She has been handling her mother's illness alone and now has to attend to Jess's long painful journey through the recovery process. But it is Kelvin who reveals that Kasie cries herself to sleep. By keeping the characters removed from the realities of homecoming, Ferrentino dilutes the play's power and ability to enmesh us into the immediacy of pain and disillusionment.

Jess's ex Stevie is goofy to the point of distraction. We wonder what a college-educated self-starter like Jess could have seen in him prior to the deployment. His lame jokes and shallow interests could not be what drew her back. Perhaps it is just for the reaffirmation that she once was – which sparks a flirtation on the roof for an evening NASA shuttle launch accompanied by beer and boom box.

What is fascinating however, is the virtual reality technology at the heart of Jess's rehabilitation; a therapeutic landscape which is designed to overwhelm her pain and allow free range of motion. It really exists in a less customized form. The avatar that is projected helps erase her grim reality and allows the possibility for a future. The director Daniella Varon and set designer John McDermott keep the actors and scene changes moving fluidly and as subtle as possible. The lighting designer creates the suggestion of virtual reality without sharing literal pictures inside of Jess's mind.

Potential for a great story exists; there are poignant and humorous moments but we are sometimes distracted by the superficial interplay with the other characters. Though they do their jobs, there is too little for them to mine in each role. Either deepen and expand them or delete them.

The play originated in Roundabout Theatre Company's Black Box Series — which nurtures younger playwrights. Ferrentino should take this chance to make crucial decisions about the future of Ugly Lies the Bone. It has the potential to stun!

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Ugly Lies the Bone by Lindsey Ferrentino
Director: Daniela Varon
Cast: Hamish Allan-Headley (Stevie) Ariel Bock (Voice/Mom) Dylan chalfy (elvin) Rory Hammond (Kacie) Christianna Nelson (Jess)
Set Design: John McDermott
Costume Design: Govane Lohbauer
Lighting Design: James W. Bilnoski >BR > Sound Design: Amy Altadonna
Makeup and wig designer: Scott Jones
Stage Manager: Maegan Alyse Passafume
Running Time: Ninety minutes; no intermission
Shakespeare & Co., Elayne Bernstein Theatre, Lenox, MA
From 6/16/16; opening 6/24/16; closing 8/28/16
Reviewed by Gloria Miller at 6/24/16 performance

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