GRUESOME PLAYGROUND INJURIES: An Unconventional Love Story
A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis
TheatreLAB’s The Cellar Series 2018: This Beautiful Mess
At: TheatreLab, The Basement, 300 E. Broad St, RVA 23219
Performances: June 11-23, 2018
Ticket Prices: $15
Info: (804) 506-3533 or theatrelabrva.org
Whenever anyone describes a particularly gruesome injury, I get an unpleasant, bone-chilling, tingly feeling that starts in my core and runs down my limbs. Rajiv Joseph’s 2009 play, Gruesome Playground Injuries, provided many such opportunities over the span of two hours (real time) and thirty years (scripted time),
Rachel Rose Gilmour and Jeffrey Cole both give compelling performances as the couple in this intense and intimate story that follows the lives of Kayleen and Doug, as they mark the significant moments in their lives by their injuries – both physical and emotional. Kayleen and Doug first meet in the nurse’s office of their elementary school, St. Margaret Mary’s. Kayleen is nursing one of her chronic stomachaches, while Doug has ridden his bike off the roof of the school in an attempt to mimic daredevil Evel Knievel. How did he get his bike to the roof of the school, you might ask? He climbed a tree, with his bike. Yeah, he’s that kind of kid. The result, of course, is that he has extensive damage to his face.
Other young lovers exchange kisses or friendship bracelets, but not these two. Oh no…they decide to mix the most unlikely of bodily fluids in a bucket. Doug’s life is marked by a series of accidents, usually the result of, to use his word, being “brave.” Without giving away too much, I’ll just share the titles of some of the scenes: “Face Split Open,” “Eye Blown Out,” “Pink Eye.” Kayleen, who has a special gift when it comes to saving Doug, is, ironically, unable to save herself, and descends into a spiral of depression and mental illness, some of which results in physical harm. How timely, that this production should open just as we are reeling from the recent suicides of designer Kate Spade and celebrity chef and travel foodie Anthony Bourdain.
Author Rajiv Joseph has set this story in a series of eight scenes, occurring in five-year intervals, starting when the character are 8 years old and ending when they are 38 – but the scenes are not performed in strict chronological order. This requires the characters, who change clothes onstage at the start of each scene – to transform into different ages before our very eyes. They each have a folding chair, the type you’d find in a typical, basic dressing room, and a small mirror, and they often keep an eye on one another as they change their attire and scars. Oh yes, there are bandages and blood aplenty.
Each scene is also accompanied by a transition statement and song. For example, Scene 1 includes the transition “Can you save me?” accompanied by the song “Save Me” by Aimee Mann, and Scene 7, “Just because it hurts doesn’t mean it isn’t worth it,” is accompanied by Maria Mena’s “Growing Pains.”
In spite of its gruesome nature, there are many moments of lightness and laughter – Doug becomes an insurance claims adjustor and, of course, gets injured inspecting the roof of their former school. And, more than once, I was reminded of the mother in A Christmas Story¸ constantly warning Ralphie that he would shoot his eye out. But make no mistake, this is an intense and moving play about people with real problems: accidents, injuries, hospitalizations, family stress, death, cutting, and more. And it is a story about love: young love, healing love, forgiving love, unrequited love, blind love, enduring love. Melissa Rayford has directed this production with a sure hand; it is intimate and funny and handles difficult subjects with delicacy but without sugar-coating anything. The pacing is just right, without lags or awkward pauses, and the moments of silence or stillness are heavy with meaning.
This is not a play for the faint of heart, or for anyone who is looking for a fairy tale ending with all the loose ends neatly tied up. Kayleen says at one point, Doug has gotten “caught up in the spokes of my train wreck.” In response, Doug reminds her that trains do not have spokes.
Gruesome Playground Injuries uses the same set as Topdog/Underdog, which is still running in the same space on alternate nights. The basic scenic elements have been rearranged so that it is actually an entirely new setting. Kudos to the production team: scenic design by David Melton, lighting by Michael Jarett, sound and costume design by Melissa Rayford and the cast. This is a Cellar Series production, the theme of which is “This Beautiful Mess,” and in addition to a minimal budget and borrowed design elements, it has a very short run: June 12 & 13, June 21-23, so don’t mess around and miss it.
NOTE: During Monday night’s preview, outside construction created a bit of a sound distraction for half the show, but not enough to spoil the play and Rachel Rose Gilmour and Jeffrey Cole never let it show that they were competing with jackhammers and steam rollers and all the other big machines. Carry on!
Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.
Photo Credits: Louise Ricks