Life comes with injuries. Skin bruises and gets scraped, bones break, surgery leaves a permanent reminder of the scalpel's territorial marking. But the real scars—the emotional ones—have the lasting impact.
Not profound, sure, and neither is Rajiv Joseph's play Gruesome Playground Injuries, having the first of two North Texas productions this year by Denton's Sundown Collaborative Theatre, directed by Nick Ross.
It's a fraction as weighty as Joseph's Pulitzer finalist Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo (which just ended a top-notch run at Theatre Three); although they both have something to say about war wounds, physical and mental, in very different battlefields.
Gruesome, which had its world premiere in 2009 at Houston's Alley Theatre, plays out in eight scenes, following two characters, Doug (Travis Stuebing) and Kayleen (Mikaela Krantz), time-jumping between the ages of 8 and 38. There is a numerical method to the ordering of the scenes. They either leap forward 15 years, or back 10. (So, from 8 to 23 to 13, 28, 18, 33, 23, 38.)
It begins with Kayleen caring for her friend Doug, whose head has been cut in a playground injury. In almost every scene, the accident-prone Doug has some kind of boo-boo or malady. Pink eye is the least of these worries. Eventually we find out that Kayleen has physical scars, too. She also inflicts pain, whether she knows it or not, as much as Doug is the recipient of it. For both, the emotional wreckage would mount to a bankrupting equivalent if it had to be paid for in today's healthcare system.
They remain friends throughout, but there's more to their relationship than friendship. That's where the emotional scarring comes in.
This is the year of Rajiv Joseph in North Texas (Second Thought Theatre will also do Gruesome, in June; and Dallas Theater Center has a premiere musical with a book by him, Fly, in July). This title is particularly well-suited for a low-budget group like Sundown, which uses a dance studio as their performance space and, for the set pieces, a few blocks that can be repositioned for each scene.
True to Joseph's stage directions, Stuebing and Krantz change Cierra M.C. Lopez's costumes between each scene onstage, with some help from the stage crew. For Stuebing, it also means changing bandages and make-up. Adding to this concept, director Ross has the names of Joseph's scenes posted, along with the characters' ages, upstage. Pop music from each time period helps set the year and explains the outfits.
As an actor, Stuebing has something Charlie Brown-esque about him in general, but here, it especially works to his advantage as you feel sorry for him but also secretly laugh at his misfortune. It's an empathetic schadenfreude. Krantz has being doing fine work on Fort Worth and Dallas stages in recent years, and its says much of her ability that she is able to make you like Kayleen even though you recognize that she's the worst kind of sadist, the kind who doesn't realize the pain she inflicts until it's (almost) too late.
Maybe traits like these are embedded in our DNA, just as eye and hair color. Those things are easy to cosmetically change, at least. Joseph suggests here that an inclination to inflict emotional wounds may be, like the scorpion once said, in our nature.