Fort Worth — Think of all the ways, small and large, that we go the extra mile for our children, our parents, our brothers and sisters. Does what we do for family depend on them being worthy of our efforts? Of course not, right? But what if “doing” for them means putting our own life in danger? What if they haven’t done right by us, and now want us to do right by them? Suddenly, there are calculations involved, a kind of emotional bookkeeping that makes us squirm—and gives Michael Hollinger’s Under the Skin at Circle Theatre an unusual and compelling source of tension and conflict.
Raina (Alexandra Lawrence) is surprised, and not in a good way, to find her mostly-absent father Lou (Mark Fickert) at her door one night, hoping to finally meet his four-year-old granddaughter and oh, by the way, to borrow a kidney.
But “this story isn’t about kidneys,” says Raina. It’s about other organs and body parts (Lou can name one that’s gotten him into plenty of trouble). It’s about family, about “flesh and blood, and what we owe to those who share them…and what they owe us.” Raina sends Lou away, but we know it won’t end there. She won’t be able to stop thinking about his need. She won’t be able to stop spinning her wheels about this decision—and what it will say about who she is.
So, will she—or won’t she? And what will Raina learn along the way, about herself and her family?
Director Alan Shorter and a savvy cast of four (three making a Circle debut) bring a real freshness to their portrayals. Lawrence takes a few minutes to settle into the part, but then is perfect as the mile-a-minute Raina, who says everything that comes into her head…twice. And though she seems scattered, she surprises us with a tough-mindedness we don’t see coming. Fickert is exasperatingly right as the gruff and clueless Lou, the sort of working Joe who lives as he wants, conveniently forgets the trouble he creates…and learns nothing. Stormi Demerson gives not one but three memorable performances: a dryly humorous African doctor, a painfully polite barista, and a worried mother, Marlene, whose part in the plot is slowly revealed. And Sam Henderson, frequently of the Dallas Theater Center, brings a ton of charm and humor to the roles of Jarrell, another potential kidney donor, and Hector, a hospital nurse with a lot to say.
Under the Skin is the latest in a line of Hollinger plays produced at Circle (the last was 2014’s Hope & Gravity), and again it’s a fine fit for the company. Hollinger’s plays are trickier and more complex than they seem at first viewing. The language is simple, contemporary—seemingly as direct as set designer Clare Floyd DeVries too-true linoleum-floored hospital room—but look again: there is, also, an intricate sense of pattern and structure perhaps not surprising in a playwright whose first training was as a classical musician. In one memorable scene that plays out like a brief chamber quartet, two pairs of actors share the physical stage space, though (plot-wise) from two different locations. Their two conversations are crisscrossed and perfectly timed, the words overlapping, one melody dominating and then the other (and aided by designer John Leach’s thoughtful lighting choices). Yes, like music.
Somewhere along the way, Hollinger’s title for the play begins to collect nuance and resonance. Despite the play’s mix of white and African-American characters, this is not a story focused on race—not a play about skin color, tone, shade and all the ridiculousness that clings to that topic. Instead, we are asked to look under the skin, under the surface, not just for organ “matches” but for answers about how we are connected, as family and as the human community.
To say much more about the plot risks spoiling its unexpectedness. Raina, making a list of “pluses and minuses” about Lou, returns more than once to the subject of blood in all its meanings: “It’s inside you, defining you…a shackle” that connects you to people you might otherwise not want to know. Yet blood is also “a bond, a link that joins us”—and Raina longs for that feeling of connection, wherever it can be found.
Sounds serious, but as with all the thrashings and struggles of other people, Hollinger’s light-handed and comic way with dialogue gives the audience freedom to laugh, sympathetic but well-entertained. And the play takes some quirky turns that manage to catch us off guard—always satisfying, if (as here) it’s pulled off well.
Some questions we may not find answered: Why are Raina and the coffee shop barista so eternally, hilariously at odds? Is the word “Lubbock” intrinsically funny—or just to Texans? But other questions will be cleared up: Will Raina find a “plus” for her list of reasons to help her father? Who is Uncle Gummy? Why can’t Lou remember his granddaughter’s name? Under the Skin is a family drama on serio-comic steroids, the stakes ratcheted up by the death-threat of Lou’s stage 5 kidneys. Can organ failure be funny? Apparently, that answer is yes.
A note: Circle Theatre has teamed with LifeGift, a part of Donate Life Texas, to encourage Texans to register as organ donors. Get the facts about organ donation at LifeGift.org or DonateLifeTexas.org.