Gruesome Playground Injuries
Two wounded friends walk a line between nostalgia and regret in Street Corner Arts' staging of Rajiv Joseph's play
Reviewed by Matthew Irwin, Fri., May 31, 2013
Gruesome Playground InjuriesThe Museum of Human Achievement, 916 Springdale, 512/736-8827
Through June 1
Running time: 1 hr., 30 min.
For many Americans, high school is wrought with nostalgia even before graduation. It's at once a time of discovery and a time to prepare for the rest of our lives. When life turns out disappointingly, however, that sense of nostalgia risks regret and resentment. Gruesome Playground Injuries, the Rajiv Joseph play currently being produced by Street Corner Arts (and staged earlier this year by Capital T Theatre in the FronteraFest Long Fringe), balances that line.
Though we meet Kayleen (Molly Karrasch) and Doug (Benjamin Summers) when they are 8 years old and leave them at 38, the play stays in high school – that is, it's wrought with pathos and meaning. The set, designed by Director A. Skola Summers, suggests the bedrooms of teens identifying themselves through pop culture and various extracurriculars. The soundtrack is a panoply of sentimental tunes that currently infest the airwaves. It appropriately contrasts the counter-high-school narrative of two teens whose lives seem destined for suffering and failure, lives without those nostalgic sentimental moments.
The scenes jump ahead 15 years or back 10. Joseph, playwright of the Pulitzer-nominated drama Bengal Tiger in the Baghdad Zoo (and graduate of the same undergrad writing program I attended in Oxford, Ohio), explicitly states in the script that all scene changes should take place in front of the audience, in particular the application of Doug's wounds. "There is no need to hide any of this work from the audience," Joseph writes. These devices, of course, draw our attention to the fact that we're watching a play, but they also give us the feeling of watching an accident in slow motion, unable to do anything about it. Worse, they suggest that time is fixed, and like Billy Pilgrim in Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, our only option is to bounce around it.
For all the work that the playwright and Street Corner Arts do to distance us from the characters, however, I find myself empathizing with the idea of them. Kayleen's injuries are internal, though the result of external forces, such as an abusive father. Doug, on the other hand, is accident-prone, a term to which he explicitly objects, but nevertheless, his enthusiasm for life and its adventures repeatedly land him in the infirmary, and it is there, more or less, that the two reunite over and over again.
Both Kayleen and Doug bear the scars of their experiences, and they don't let those experiences alter their outlooks on life. Kayleen remains cynical, Doug enthusiastic. And though Doug attempts to turn their friendship into a romance, they remain only pals. We might feel unsatisfied, but before the lights dim for the last time, the two take a nostalgic look back, more hopeful than the narrative we witnessed might have suggested.