Virtual reality as psychotherapy is a concept new to me, but that’s how it's being used in American playwright Lindsey Ferrentino’s awkwardly titled Ugly Lies the Bone. The recipient of this therapy is Jess (Kate Fleetwood), who, after three tours of combat duty in Afghanistan, has returned home to Titusville near Cape Canaveral in Florida so physically scarred (it took three operations to replace an eyelid) and covered in unsightly skin-drafts, each step she takes or movement she makes is excruciatingly painful.
Jess is damaged emotionally as well, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder – a condition mirrored by the shell-sock suffered by her small hometown and its diminished community in the wake of NASA’s cutbacks to its space programme. The VR experiments she undergoes have been designed to give her more mobility through much-needed exercise and to divert her mind from her pain by following an avatar as it passes through a dream-like, snowy landscape.
In tandem with these sessions are her attempts to rehabilitate herself domestically. She lives with her caring sister Kacie (Olivia Darnley), who is trying to cope with the stress of Jess’s problems without outwardly showing the strain, and with Kacie’s boyfriend Kelvin (Kris Marshal), an oaf with hidden sensitivities.
She also reacquaints herself with Stevie (Ralf Little), an erstwhile boyfriend now running a gas station convenience store. Though Stevie is married, he has never forgiven Jess for choosing a third tour in Afghanistan over him. As it turns out, he’s still emotionally attached to her even though he can’t bear to look at her physically.
The nearest thing to a love scene between them takes place when, from the top of her house, they both watch the very last space shuttle launch. It’s a rare and moving moment of intimacy, which ends badly after Jess suffers a relapse and has to be hospitalised. Moving too is the moment when Jess makes the physically painful effort to put on a new, more appealing blue dress in place of the clothes she usually wears.
Despite its liberating VR vistas of a world where anything seems possible, this is a bleak and uncomfortable play to watch. Ferrentino does, however, provide a ray of hope. In the play’s final moments we get to meet Jess and Kacie’s mother, who has dementia and lives in a home. She has deliberately been kept away from Jess because of the distress that seeing her daughter so horribly scarred might cause. The mother, however, doesn’t at all register what has happened to her daughter and sees her as she once was. This uncompromising acceptance gives Jess the kind of therapy with which her VR treatment could never compete.
Ugly Lies the Bone is a small play whose larger context – the nature of the ongoing war in the Middle East, its purpose and political implications, the role played by women in it – are marginalised. And it doesn't make a particularly convincing case for VR as therapy. It might have resonated more strongly had it been staged in the smaller, intimate Dorfman Theatre. By putting a wide-angle lens on what is basically a chamber piece and mounting it in the more demanding Lyttelton, intimacy has been sacrificed for the kind of production values it could have survived without.
Ferrentino’s writing is very good, and so are the performances. Fleetwood, though physically encumbered by the restrictions demanded of her character, is in total command of the role’s spectrum of fluctuating emotions. Darnley effectively delineates both Kacie’s outward and inner selves where her sisterly feelings are concerned. As Stevie, Little articulates the pain and confusion caused by circumstances too complex for him to understand or control. In the end, though, I wonder whether, by giving the playwright the most prestigious exposure of her promising career to date, the National is doing her or her play a favor.