“Does it hurt?”
That question is asked more than once by both characters in “Gruesome Playground Injuries,” presented by Kent Stephens’ Stage Force company at the Star Theater in Kittery. The play runs through next weekend.
The answer is unsurprising: it does hurt. But the injuries suffered by Kayleen (Jessica Miller) and Doug (Ryan Salvato), all gruesome indeed over the 30 years we witness, are more than bloody, pus-filled messes. There is emotional and psychological damage, too, that seems immune to any palliative fix.
But the play, written by Pulitzer-prize-winning playwright Rajiv Joseph, doesn’t have much of a story, and that can be a challenge for the actors who must embody these characters at various stages in their lives, from age eight, when they first meet in their school’s infirmary, to 38, after years of living have taken their toll.
Miller and Salvato are hemmed in by the play’s structure, which gives us Doug and Kayleen at different moments in time, but out of chronological order, a scattershot approach that filmmaker Quentin Tarantino has mastered in his own tales of ghastliness. But while Tarantino builds layers of newfound details that eventually build to a fever pitch – and to revelation – Joseph’s is more like a merry-go-round. Sometimes you’re up and sometimes you’re down, but you’re passing by the same point every time you come around.
That doesn’t mean the play isn’t enjoyable. Miller and Salvato ably bring these two flawed humans to life. Salvato in particular has superb comedic timing that not only provoked an uproar of laughter from the audience every time, but also served to accentuate Doug’s deep pain.
Kayleen’s injuries seem alarming, but they are buried deep, and we’re not privy to the details. “Girls don’t get scars,” Doug confidently says when they’re eight, and while she vehemently disagrees, we don’t see much beneath the hardened top layer. The wall she builds, which risk-taker Doug tries to scale or burst through in various ways over time, is too high and strong for him. Her anger is believable, even palpable as served up by Miller, but it’s also an obstacle to her growth. This leaves Kayleen to accuse Doug, many times over the years, of being “stupid” (and even “retarded,” an insult that feels anachronistic in this work, which premiered in 2009), well past the teen years when “stupid” is a go-to conversation stopper. That leaves the distinct impression that she hasn’t matured much, or maybe can’t.
Something the play shows but doesn’t explore is Kayleen’s lack of consent to the kisses she receives or even, at one point, sex, a disturbing element that contributes to the sense that the audience is being kept above the surface.
There was no elevated stage at the Star Theater, giving the audience an intimate perspective of what does take place. A huge screen projected the actors’ makeup prep – off with this bloody mess, on with that lipstick – a direction from Joseph that gives the goings on an enjoyable immediacy that the action itself doesn’t quite.
This play is ultimately based on questions and ideas – what is pain, how do we hurt each other, how do human beings fail to confront pain and dress the wounds that are screaming for attention. And, importantly, why do we fail the people we love? That keeps its complexity high-minded – even self-conscious – and robs it of an emotional resolution. But thanks to strong performances and to the questions it does raise, this energetic production stays with you.
WHAT: “Gruesome Playground Injuries” by Kent Stephens’ Stage Force
WHERE: Star Theater, 120 Rogers Road, Kittery
WHEN: Through Oct. 26.
TICKETS: $25 to $30
Daphne Howland is a freelance writer based in Portland.