Posted June 25, 2016 in Articles
Author: Steve Barnes
On her third deployment to Afghanistan, Jess, the young woman at the center of the profoundly affecting drama "Ugly Lies the Bone," was blown up by an IED. Burn scars cover almost all of her right side. (The makeup, by Scott Jones, is exemplary.)
At the beginning of the play, running at Shakespeare & Company through late August, Jess is finally back home in Florida after almost two years of hospitalization and treatment.
"It took three surgeries to give me my eyelid back," she says.
She's on multiple medications, requires application of skin salves several times a day and remains in constant pain, which rises to excruciating levels with even the most mundane of movements, including getting dressed. In just one of many extraordinary scenes from Christianna Nelson, who plays Jess, she changes from her usual outfit, sweatpants and T-shirt, into a sundress; she's finally starting to feel human again, to however small a degree, and so she powers through the agony of donning the dress. But bending her torso is akin to torture. She says, "When the bigger (skin) grafts stretch, it feels like I'm still on fire."
The play, written by Lindsey Ferrentino and directed Daniela Varon, who directed the superb "Shakespeare's Will" in Lenox two summers ago, is an absorbing exploration of how we manage different kinds of pain — physical, emotional and spiritual. In a story based on real-world efforts to help vets deal with chronic pain, Jess is enrolled in an experimental therapy program that uses virtual-reality goggles. The researcher treating her, whom we hear but never seen (the voice is by Ariel Bock), tells Jess that the goal is to create a different world, a paradise, to "distract your brain with enough stimuli (that) it won't be able to think about your pain." (The sound and lighting designers, Amy Altadonna and Scott James Bilnoski, respectively, do fine work with these scenes.)
As she's undergoing therapy, Jess is also trying to rebuild some semblance of a life. She lives with her sister, Kacie (Rory Hammond), in their childhood home; their mother (Bock), who has dementia, is in a care facility. Jess, who dreams of returning to teaching elementary school, rages when she realizes that's probably impossible.
Anger — about her injuries, limitations and likely future — at times makes her lash out, particularly at her sister's sweet doofus of a boyfriend (Dylan Chalfy), who exhibits more insight than one would have expected from him when he identifies why she's so hostile to him: "I'm the only person who didn't know you before (the injuries), so I guess you have to hate me."
Matters are better with her former boyfriend (Hamish Allan-Headly), another dim sort, who's stuck in a dead-end job and a marriage he pursed thinking it would jump-start his life. Their scenes together are gentle, touching, true; they have the rhythms of people who once knew one another well and are trying to figure out what that means for them now.
"You are not built to endure," the researcher tells Jess. "You are built to recover." It's a privilege to watch her doing it.