In 2010, my mom and dad rushed me out of bed early in the morning and shoved me into our Honda Odyssey, where I promptly fell asleep. When I woke up, we’d stopped at a pier an hour or two away from where we were staying on our trip to Florida. It was still dark outside but people were everywhere, alternatively camped out in foldable chairs or standing as close as physically possible. Wading into the crowd, I thought I heard every language on the face of the planet. When we’d found a good spot (or at least as good as we could find considering the crowd), we prepped our phones to capture the event on camera: NASA’s last space shuttle launch to occur at night. The space shuttle program would completely end a year later.
Interestingly, this same event is portrayed -- though at a distance -- in Three Bone Theatre’s newest production, “Ugly Lies the Bone.” It grounds the play in its time period, the early 2010’s. “Ugly Lies the Bone” follows Jess (Andrea King), an Afghanistan war veteran, as she returns home from her third tour to Titusville, Florida. She was injured by an IED, which caused severe burns and scarring on the side of her body. But Titusville has rapidly changed in her absence as NASA shut down its space shuttle program -- the town’s main source of income. It isn’t the only change either. Her ex-boyfriend Stevie (Scott Tynes-Miller) got married. Her sister Kacie (Becky Schultz) started dating a man named Kelvin (Peter Finnegan), much to Jess’ dismay. It isn’t the safe haven Jess dreamed of returning to.
To cope with her physical pain, Jess participates in an experimental new type of therapy. A scientist/therapist, only heard as a voice (Debbie Swanson), explains that she will build a “perfect world” for Jess. It should be completely different than what she is familiar with. It should allow her to move forward and not to focus on the past. Jess is inspired by her sister’s goal of visiting the Rocky Mountains. The cold. The quiet. The snow. That sounds perfect to Jess. Through a customized virtual reality experience created by the unseen Voice, she is able to travel there. When surrounded by snow, Jess is able to move more freely and escape from the stresses of her everyday life.
Of course, this escape is only temporary. Jess has plenty of struggles waiting for her in the outside world. For example, trying to find a job in a town where there aren’t any. Or attempting to reconnect with an ex who is unhappily married and still cares for her. Or avoiding visiting her mother for fear she won’t recognize her. Sure, “Ugly Lies the Bone” is about Jess’s physical journey. However, it focuses far more on her personal one. It is about Jess’ relationships with others and with herself. The therapy functions as a time out, a place where she can breathe and reset before she tackles the other complicated parts of her life.
“Ugly Lies the Bone,” was written by the award-winning Lindsey Ferrentino and comes to Charlotte for the first time by way of the Three Bone Theatre company. Dee Abdullah joins the company as the director. It is an exceptional production, from casting to costume and set design (Davita Galloway and Ryan Maloney, respectively). The set is immersive, using huge swaths of white background to project Jess’s virtual reality onto. It’s also versatile and functions as a gas station, living room and rooftop throughout the play. It is a phenomenal use of the Duke Energy Theater.
The backbone of what makes “Ugly Lies the Bone” work is the characters. They are fully-realized and complicated. They make mistakes but the audience roots for them. Take, for example, Kelvin. Kelvin looks like the “Florida Man” headline came to life, from his capris to his Hawaiin shirt to his Crocs. He is extremely loud, opinionated and frequently puts his foot in his mouth. At one point the list of things that he says make him a great boyfriend are that he 1) drives 2) cooks and 3) doesn’t need viagra. Jess distrusts him immediately. The audience, through her eyes, is lead to believe that Kelvin is attempting to swindle Kacie out of her money by asking her to “invest” in his sketchy business ideas. However, the end reveals that he really was just using the money to buy Kacie the vacation she’d never buy for herself. The one to the Rockies. Granted, this doesn’t redeem Kelvin entirely either. The long speech he gives to Jess about her need to be “positive,” is a perfect encapsulation of his regular dismissal of Jess’s struggles and concerns.
This same level of care and complexity is represented in Jess’ relationship with her ex-boyfriend Stevie. From the second they share a stage, the tension is palpable. The two clearly care deeply about one another. The familiarity and trust between them comes back almost automatically. Yet, Stevie got married in Jess’s absence. Throughout the course of the play, the audience learns why: Stevie didn’t want to be alone. He thought that marriage would make him feel like an adult, like it would change him. But it didn’t. It is a basic human folly: the idea that accomplishing something, or getting older, or finding someone will make you fundamentally different. The way Tynes-Miller and King sell this relationship is absolutely masterful. Near the end, the two truly brought me to tears.
Schultz as Kacie and Swanson as the Voice/Jess’ mother are equally heavy-hitters on stage. Their familial closeness feels real. Kacie and Jess, as they sit on the couch together with one’s feet on the other’s lap, could be any pair of sisters.
“Ugly Lies the Bone” is hard to write about. It takes on so much. It is about disability and PTSD and the changing idea of what a veteran looks like. It’s about change and aging and family. It is about what constitutes home (and paradise). “Ugly Lies the Bone” boldly declares that maybe one needs to sort through their past in order to move forward and into the present, contrary to what the doctors at Jess’s therapy sessions believe. While it features groundbreaking technological therapies and virtual reality, it focuses far more on the human. Furthermore, it consistently gives Jess the spotlight as she finds self-acceptance and community with those around her. “Ugly Lies the Bone” is a clear and insightful look into Jess’s life as she reintegrates into American society.
“Ugly Lies the Bone” will play for its second weekend through Jan 30 - Feb 1. It is housed in the Duke Energy Theatre in Spirit Square. Student and teacher tickets are available at the door on Thursday and Friday nights for $10, one per ID. General tickets are $22 online and $28 at the door.
Editor's Note: The print edition of this article indicated that the space shuttle launch mentioned in the opening paragraph took place in 2011 and was the last NASA space shuttle launch ever. This had been fact-checked with another individual who was there. However, it was actually the last space shuttle launch to occur at night. This took place in 2010. The paragraph has been edited to reflect these corrections.