With its current production, Gruesome Playground Injuries, small but salient Dallas theater company Second Thought Theatre gives its audiences another stellar production. A compelling script by Rajiv Joseph explores themes of vulnerability and human connection.
Doug (Montgomery Sutton) and Kayleen (Jessica Renee Russell) became friends in the nurse’s office at 8 years old. She was sick and admits to enjoying her visits to the nurse, and he has hurt himself by biking off the school roof while pretending to be Evel Knievel.
The play follows their friendship, as the two reunite at irregular intervals into middle age. Each time we see them they are unwell; both of them are broken and bruised in different ways.
The play is told out of sequence, jumping from childhood to adulthood and back. But director Joel Ferrell retains a clear narrative by framing the play with the actors changing costumes and makeup at broken mirrors on opposite sides of the stage (a precise set design by Bob Lavallee). The theater-in-the-round approach is especially effective in this work, placing the audience inches away from the actors as they paint on and remove the scars.
At age 18, Doug has a black eye from fighting a classmate at school, but moments before, the audience watched him apply the wound to his face. This gives the characters a sense of agency, as though much of their pain in life is self-inflicted.
Ferrell amplifies this idea by having the characters write their ages on the mirrors. These simple choices disallow any perception of the characters as victims; in this play, Doug and Kayleen are telling their own stories. Although a frustrating choice to apply to 8-year-olds, it bears significance later in life as they choose to remain in the cycle of self-abuse.
Throughout the changes in Doug’s age, Sutton retains wide eyes (until he loses one) and a believably relentless affection for Kayleen. Russell’s performance as Kayleen creates a counterpoint to Sutton: When he is eager, she is cold; when he is embarrassed, she is inquisitive.
Russell makes clear transitions from one age to another, capturing the carefree timidity of an 8-year-old, as well as the beaten-down bitterness of a middle-aged woman in rehab.
Despite the weighty subject matter, the actors share a knack for acidic comedy, mining knowing laughs in nearly every scene.
Gruesome Playground Injuries runs through June 29 at Kalita Humphreys Theater.