Ugly Lies The Bone at Tampa's Innovocative Theatre is a failure of invention

One splendid performance can't salvage an insufficiently imaginative play.

Ugly Lies The Bone

Two and a half of five stars

Innovocative Theatre, 1120 E. Kennedy Blvd., Tampa.

Through Aug. 19. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 3 p.m.


$30, $25 seniors, $20 student/military.

The uncomfortable fact is, Ugly Lies The Bone suffers from a lack of imagination. Lindsey Ferrentino’s drama, a co-production of Innovocative Theatre and Stageworks, brings us a heroine we care about and respect, but who in 90 minutes is allowed to do little more than rehearse her pain and despair. Yes, we want urgently for “Jess,” a casualty of the war in Afghanistan, to escape her distress, to find real comfort in her friendships, to have a fighting chance at something like a normal civilian life on Florida's east coast. But author Ferrentino starts the play by placing Jess in a few basic situations, and then repeats them so often, and with so little variety, we can’t help but feel parched for something like an engaging plot. Even Marie-Claude Tremblay’s superb performance as Jess can’t salvage a script so short on invention. As the play’s only male figures are written and performed as two-dimensional jerks, and as the prospect of a rehab utilizing virtual reality finally fails to justify its existence, we’re left with little but our solicitude for one damaged, courageous soldier. We’re with you, Jess, we’re rooting for you from start to finish. We only wish you’d been given a vehicle worthy of your valor.

The play endeavors to show us Jess’s life after a 14-month hospital stay. She was badly burned and disfigured by an IED while in uniform, and even moving her limbs a few inches can cause her great pain. At rehab, she’s asked to put on a virtual reality headset, and to construct a false paradise that will somehow counteract her mental and physical agony. What she sees at these moments is projected above the set: It seldom consists of anything more paradisiacal than a mountain range in snow, and not a particularly persuasive one. How such a relatively pallid fantasy can be expected to mitigate her tortured reality is never addressed; instead she’s told by a Voice (Dawn Truax, who also makes one short onstage appearance at play’s end) to enjoy her (unseen) avatar’s freedom as if she were experiencing it herself. This is hardly convincing: what avatar? Where? Is Jess seeing what we’re seeing?

There’s more to Jess’s story than VR, however; she has regular contact with her sister Kacie (Erin Foster), Kacie’s boyfriend Kelvin (Jacob Barrens), and Jess’s ex-boyfriend Stevie (Jason Hoolihan). The best news here is Foster’s acting: She movingly plays Kacie as a young woman who’s doing everything she can think of to be supportive of her injured sister, even when that sister is ornery, impatient, self-pitying. But Ferrentino has written former flame Stevie as an obtuse dolt, and that’s just the way Hoolihan plays him — so why did Jess ever choose him for a partner? Barrens as Kelvin is even more of a caricature: He comes across like a frat boy in a low-budget movie, all about the pizza and the brewskis, and ain’t testosterone grand? These guys are supposed to be Jess’s foils, against whom she can deploy rage and sadness and need and indignation, but this can hardly work well when neither man is fully human. All right, it’s probably a script problem, but director Staci Sabarsky should have worked with her actors toward some credible solution. She didn’t, and the play is notably weakened as a result.

And yet, and yet… Tremblay is splendid as Jess. What a challenge this role is: Half of Jess’s face is shredded; she needs a walker just to get from one side of the stage to another; she has little hope for the future, little sympathy for the unwounded, and she’s often in too much pain to even report how much pain she’s in. Tremblay nails it: She’s as real as is humanly possible, as full of yearning and determination and pessimism and fury as any pain-wracked ex-soldier might be under similar conditions.On Jeannine Borzello’s modern living room set — with carefully arranged furniture and a sign saying “Welcome Home” — Tremblay dominates this play and wins our profound concern. And that’s in spite of the narrative failings of Ferrentino’s work.

Those failings are major: In 90 minutes of drama, there are perhaps 10 minutes here of authentically creative thought. Tremblay’s performance may be the one saving grace of a problematic production, but one isn’t enough. Ugly Lies The Bone is finally tedious, not cathartic as it intends. Jess — and the audience — deserves more. 

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