Saturday, February 15, 2020

Theatre AUM: "Gruesome Playground Injuries"

Before he came into prominence with award-winning productions of Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo and Guards at the Taj, playwright Rajiv Joseph had penned a lesser-known two-hander. Another unexpected treat from Theatre AUM, Gruesome Playground Injuries runs a little over an hour, but delves deeply into the lives of two damaged people whose co-dependency goes unrecognized.

Director Val Winkelman stages the play on an open area minimalist set by Emily Aveldanez, with evocative lighting by Cheyenne Singleton, and choreographs her "deck crew" [Ashley Allen and Tabitha Neyerlin] to shift the simple furniture pieces and assist the actors as they change into Faith Roberts's effective costumes in full view of the audience, thus serving as visual stimuli to what to expect in each successive scene.

Over the course of some thirty years, from age 8 to 38, and told backwards and forwards in time, Kayleen [Jacquelyn Vaughn] and Doug [Josh Williams] sidestep every chance they have of meaningful contact. -- Oh, they talk and argue a lot, and curse a lot, and accuse one another of not caring, dismiss many regrettable choices they have made, and reject physical and emotional intimacy, yet somehow these two actors make audiences care about them and their fraught relationship. Ms. Vaughn and Mr. Williams have a comfortable stage chemistry; as they adjust their voices and postures to accommodate the age differences per scene, they carry us along their calamitous journey.

When we first meet them at age eight, it is clear they they are already damaged goods: Kayleen complains of stomach ache, and Doug has just ridden his bicycle off a roof. Curious whether their injuries hurt, and admitting it does "a little", this becomes a constant refrain, though it often refers to emotional or psychological pain rather than the series of accidental or self-inflicted injuries each one experiences. -- Kayleen "cuts" herself, and the risk-taking Doug is responsible for several and sometimes life-threatening accidents.

They come into each other's lives infrequently over the years, but seem to always know about one another. So they show up unexpectedly, only to be confronted with accusations of not caring.

The gap between them grows so wide that in the last scene they talk to each other across the expanse of the playing area, neither one of them capable of crossing the void they have created. -- And audiences are challenged to re-valuate how we see ourselves in relation to others, to recognize that damage is not always visible, and that compassion and honesty towards people in need can go a long way to make relationships meaningful.