By JAMES D. WATTS JR. World Scene Writer on Mar 14, 2012, at 2:02 AM Updated on 3/14/12 at 3:00 AM
What else would a play titled “Gruesome Playground Injuries” be but a love story?
Granted, it’s an unusual love story – one played out over 30 years, with most of the meetings between the two people involved taking place in medical facilities, their lives measured in the scars on their skins and on their souls.
Odeum Theatre Company makes its return to Tulsa stages with its production of this Rajiv Joseph play, which opened Thursday at the Nightingale Theater.
“Gruesome Playground Injuries” is very much in keeping with what Odeum has presented during its first two years. It’s contemporary, theatrical, dark in its humor and occasionally brutal in its drama.
It’s also directed and performed with great care and sensitivity, so that Joseph’s play, with its gimmicky structure and vaguely drawn characters, becomes a resonant and effective tale of two scar-crossed lovers in this company’s hands.
Doug (David A. Lawrence) and Kayleen (Dara Allen) first meet as 8-year-olds in the nurse’s office of their parochial elementary school. Kayleen has a stomachache; Doug has cuts on his face and hands after riding his bicycle off the school’s roof.
The remaining seven scenes move forward and backward in time, and each scene deals in some way with the character’s physical state.
Each scene is a self-contained unit, which is one reason Odeum could employ three directors – Whitson Hanna, Erin Scarberry and Sara Phoenix – to prepare this show.
So we meet Doug and Kayleen next at age 23, when an errant firework takes out Doug’s left eye; at 13, when Kayleen’s stomach (the source of most of her problems, it seems) keeps her out of a dance and Doug fakes a twisted ankle to be with her; at 28, when Doug lies in a coma after being struck by lightning; and so on.
What links all this physical trauma together is a story about two people who either can’t express or do not want to deal with an emotion as strong and dangerous as real love.
Joseph’s play deftly captures the way people talk at different ages. Yet it seems vaguely incomplete, as if there’s one more facet of this couple’s relationship yet to be seen.
Fortunately, Lawrence and Allen make their characters convincing, regardless of the age they need to be for each scene. As 8-year-olds, they are squirmy, impulsive, forthright and shy. As 18-year-olds, they have all the self-absorption and barely contained aggression one would expect, as well as surprising glimpses of pathos and pain.
It also helps that their transformations take place on stage, at two dressing stations on either side of the Nightingale stage area. The back wall, with the scenes’ titles and the characters’ ages in graffiti-like letters, is also adorned with the props for each scene. The process of changing clothes, applying makeup, gathering the props, gives each transformation an odd yet appealing solemnity. It’s an artificiality that never undermines the emotional reality of the scene.
“Gruesome Playground Injuries” continues with performances 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday at the Nightingale Theater, 1416 E. Fourth St.
Tickets are $10 at the door.