There was a time when summer didn’t yield such an abundance of theatrical riches in Louisville, with the big houses dark and maybe a handful of small company revivals to sustain us through the long humid season. But with a gut-punch wonderful production of Rajiv Joseph’s “Gruesome Playground Injuries” and “A Bright New Boise” (The Bard’s Town Theatre―read the review) playing now, there’s no reason to retreat to the cineplex this week.
“Gruesome Playground Injuries” is the second production in Theatre ‘s second season. Directed by co-artistic director Gil Reyes, this heartbreaker of a play embodies the spirit of Theatre ‘s mission to produce recent work by acclaimed playwrights whose work speaks to younger adults. With arts organizations across the country fretting about how to expand their audiences beyond an aging base,  has quietly set about the business of giving younger audiences what they want (coincidentally, what the co-artistic producers want, too)―shows that speak to Generations X and Y’s concerns, sensibilities and desires.
There are only three productions left of the show, which plays tonight, Friday and Saturday in the Victor Jory Theatre at Actors Theatre of Louisville. Excellent acting, thoughtful staging and a strong directorial vision make “Gruesome Playground Injuries” a can’t-miss production.
“Gruesome Playground Injuries” tells the story of Kayleen (Leah Roberts) and Doug ( co-artistic director Mike Brooks), two best friends who meet in the school nurse’s office. They trace their 30-year relationship back and forth in time through a series of accidents, illnesses and wounds. At the heart of this play is the question of how to feel worthy of an unconditional love you believe you don’t deserve, and how to know when to stop pursuing someone who loves you but pushes you away.
Doug is a daredevil, who insists that the risks he takes in the name of love and thrills don’t make him stupid: “I’m just brave, that’s all.” Kayleen has a sensitive stomach, and over the course of the play the extent of her own injuries are revealed slowly and thoughtfully, until the full picture of the woman Doug champions so wildly emerges. They’re a study in contrasts: Doug wears his bloody, electrocuted heart on his hockey jersey sleeve while Kayleen folds into herself, running from Doug into the arms of various awful men. And yet when Doug tells Kayleen, “I’m you,” even she believes it.
We meet Kayleen and Doug at age 8 and follow them through middle school, high school and young adulthood until they’re pushing 40 and less sure of their direction than ever. Under Reyes’ direction, Brooks and Roberts never act like they’re playing an age―they’re always Kayleen and Doug, displaying different degrees of intensity, guile and wisdom.
I know Brooks as a thoughtful artistic leader, an incredible director (outstanding productions include Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s “Hunter Gatherers” and “boom”) and the charismatic emcee of the late Late Seating at Actors Theatre of Louisville, but seeing him own such a demanding lead role gives me immense respect for him as an actor as well (and raises the question: what can’t this guy do?). He throws his whole body into Doug’s unabashed, unafraid desire for Kayleen, alternating between playful flirt, fierce protector and battered, splintered man.
Roberts, who has long topped my list of Louisville actresses who can make any play worth seeing, gives Kayleen a steely reserve that shields her wounded heart. When she strips down the layers of Kayleen’s defenses, we see how much damage the character has done to herself in the name of denial and self-harm.
Reyes’ staging in the intimate Victor Jory black box theater is deliberately rough around the edges, and it works like a charm, dismissing immediately the idea that a quality production must display a huge budget on-stage, or even maintain a suspension of disbelief from curtain to black.
Jay Tollefsen’s functional set features scene names (which include the characters’ ages, since the narrative is nonlinear) written on the stage floor in sidewalk chalk to be wiped away by the actors during gleeful scene changes, which also feature Brooks and Roberts applying special effects makeup and wardrobe (designed by Catherine Lee) changes on stage. But in the middle of the utilitarian set hang two playground swings that function purely as emotional focal points, grounding us in the deep history Kayleen and Doug share.
Jesse Alford’s sensitive lighting design helps underscore the drastic emotional shifts the actors undergo, and Scott Anthony’s sound design gives those frenetic scene/wardrobe/makeup changes a lovely soundtrack of their own. When the school bell rings and a new scene begins, we are right back in the imaginary world of Kayleen and Doug, hoping their hearts and bodies can survive another round.