By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The lifelong connection between the two characters in Rajiv Joseph's Gruesome Playground Injuries begins when they are 8, meeting in the school infirmary. Kayleen has tummy troubles. Dougie has just ridden his bike off the roof, splitting his forehead. Thirty years and many accidents and illnesses later, the pair finally will realize that their fate is to be together — as painful as that may be.
Joseph's play is onstage at Second Thought Theatre, a briskly paced, delicately acted production directed by Joel Ferrell and starring Jessica Renee Russell and Montgomery Sutton. It jumps in five-year chunks through the lives of its star-crossed couple. By 23, Dougie's blown out an eye playing with fireworks and Kayleen's become a cutter. She visits him in the hospital when yet another crash has put him in a coma at 28. He visits her in rehab five years later.
They keep bonding over their addiction to pain but Kayleen and Doug can't seem to admit that the only balm to their wounds, physical and emotional, would be admitting they love each other. "I'm not someone else. I'm you," says Doug, the closest playwright Joseph comes to romantic schmaltz.
Ferrell's inspired staging makes up for some of the shortcomings in the 86-minute play. He's put it in the round — Second Thought's space in Bryant Hall allows for reconfigurations of its 80 or so seats — and he's kept the actors visible throughout. Between scenes, Sutton and Russell retreat to mirrored dressing tables, where they wipe off blood and apply new bandages. She pulls her long hair into ponies and topknots. They change clothes, stripping to undies in full view of the audience. On their mirrors, they scrawl the age they are in each vignette, a helpful clue since Joseph hopscotches back and forth across three decades. Then in they go, into the arena, like boxers ready for another round of punches.
Coming off several supporting roles in Dallas theaters recently, Sutton finally gets to show what he can do as a serious actor who is blessed (or cursed) with classic good looks. Wearing an eye patch in Dougie's later scenes makes him ugly-beautiful. His performance reflects the goofy energy of an 8-year-old and captures the mature vulnerability of the same guy 30 years and many injuries later. That's not easy.
Russell, slim and angular, with a downturned mouth, gives a fearless performance as Kayleen. Everybody hurts, this play seems to say. But life hurts a little less when you're not alone.