A play about the therapeutic uses of virtual reality may sound pretty dismal, and admittedly, the unwieldy title Ugly Lies the Bone probably doesn’t help. But the Alliance Theatre’s production of Lindsey Ferrentino’s powerful new drama about a young veteran recovering from disfiguring injuries is nonetheless an undeniably moving and hard-hitting work, giving us a whole that’s greater than the sum of its somewhat unpromising parts.
Although this is the first time the Alliance has produced Ferrentino’s work, on stage through October 9, the theater has had a long relationship with the young playwright as a two-time finalist for the theater’s prestigious Kendeda National Graduate Playwriting Competition. Her play Ugly Lies the Bone had a well-received world premiere at New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company in 2015, and it’s currently receiving multiple productions around the country, including at the Alliance.
The play tells the story of Jess (Julie Jesneck), a recently returned war veteran recovering from painful injuries sustained in Afghanistan. Jess tries to get back to some semblance of her previous life in an almost surreally ordinary suburban home in central Florida, but it’s clear that the efforts of her relentlessly cheerful sister Kacie (Wendy Melkonian) are more alienating than comforting, as are tentative attempts to establish contact with her now married former boyfriend Stevie (Lee Osorio). In between scenes set in Jess’ home or in the convenience store where Stevie works, we see Jess take part in virtual reality therapy in which a soothing voice encourages her to move her limbs as an unseen avatar navigates a bleak, icy landscape.
What I found best about the play — and there are many things to praise — is how the audience and the character seem to come to a similar understanding of Jess’ situation together. Jess’ task of slow recovery is actually a universal one, the drearily Sisyphean sort. Set designer Alexander Woodward’s monolithic, eerily lit cubelike structure hovering above the otherwise naturalistic set perfectly encapsulates the play’s weird balance between the virtual and the actual worlds. The cube lowers at one point to become the roof of the ordinary suburban house from which the characters watch a space shuttle launch. But a moment when the scenery parts to reveal the snowy world of Jess’ avatar proved strangely less effective: it’s a scene that calls out for the grandeur of a stage like the Met, and a few fake trees downstairs at the Hertz just didn’t cut it.
Jesneck is a fantastic actress. I especially admired her scenes with Osorio and with Kelvin (Hugh Adams), her sister’s possibly awful, possibly nice boyfriend. But the drama centers on disfiguring injuries, and the actress must wear make-up that covers her face; this inevitably creates some distance between audience and performer. We end up watching a show in which the lead actress’ expressions, reactions and so on are obscured.
Still, the play has a power and impact that catches us by surprise, and I think it’s partly because the overall effect seems somehow to be built out of more than what we see pass before us on stage. In a similar way, the play and its central character’s struggle linger longer in the thoughts than one might initially predict. Susan Sontag once defined tragedy as the stylized depiction of suffering as the human reality. There’s seldom been a contemporary play more directly and succinctly illustrative of that lovely definition than Ugly Lies the Bone.