I can tell by the expression on your face that you have certain misgivings about attending a play that sounds more like a medical disaster than a jolly evening at the theatre.
No one can blame you for being a bit hesitant or reluctant about something called “Gruesome Playground Injuries,” given the g-word and i-word of the play’s title. But you’d be wise to ditch the hesitation and lose the reluctance. If you don’t, you’ll miss seeing one of the most unusual and intriguing plays of Stockton Civic Theatre’s season.
Be assured the injuries here are more comical than gruesome and the play far more appealing than fearsome. It’s a beguiling mixture of humor and drama, with performances by actors Dani Loera and Noah Thompson that keep you close to the characters and hopeful they can solve the riddle of love.
Presented in a series of brief scenes that go back and forth in time, it all begins with two eight-year-olds meeting and comparing notes in the office of an elementary school nurse. From there, the plot’s back and forth chronology spans 30 years in the lives of a couple destined by fate (or whatever you wish to call it) to be partners in an on-and-off relationship whose meetings typically occur in healthcare facilities.
The genesis of the play, according to playwright Rajiv Joseph, began in a series of encounters with a friend who had a persistent habit of confiding his accidents and grievances every time the two met. For some people, that would be an excuse to avoid the friend and end the friendship. For Joseph, it was the inspiration for a plot—-and the idea for a play that has captivated audiences since its Broadway premiere in 2009.
The talents of actors Loera and Thompson are put to the test in the small, interactive space of SCT’s Pam Kitto Black Box Theatre, where there is no stage and nowhere to hide. As you watch the play unfold so closely before you, it isn’t long before you feel less like a spectator than a participant.
The actors here not only bring their roles to life, but add an unanticipated extra by changing costumes before your eyes after each episode. They also function as the crew, setting up the cots and chairs of the play’s scant furnishings. If there is a Willie (our local equivalent of a Broadway Tony) for full service performances, Loera and Thompson are definitely in the running for a nomination. Collaborative actors, costume changers and furniture movers, the only thing this hard-working duo doesn’t do is sell cookies and refreshments.
Welcome to the world of Kayleen (Loera) and Doug (Thompson), two lost souls who keep finding one another throughout their lives. Doug’s calamities, induced by his own jovial recklessness (it makes sense that his idol is famed daredevil stunt performer Evel Knievel) and Kayleen’s emotional and gastrointestinal problems (whose source is more mysterious) keep drawing the pair together to share stories and unsteady companionship. It’s the beginning of a topsy-turvy relationship for which not even Ann Landers would have a solution.
Doug’s stunts begin with riding his bike off the roof of his school and inevitably lead him to require medical attention–and to find Kayleen somewhere on the premises with another episode of tummy upset. They share not only pity and sympathy, but frustrations and temper tantrums.
This is obviously not a match made in heaven, but the encounters of the couple over the course of time keeps you wondering. Can they ever become (as they seem to wish) closer and more comforting to one another? Can the two of them somehow manage to create a stable relationship that can lead to happiness?
These questions haunt the play and keep its audience in suspense. Even as you hope for a happy ending, doubt may lead you to wonder if it is too much to ask. Can love conquer all, even in this case?
It remains to be seen whether our troubled twosome will find the necessary peace of mind and calmness of heart to secure their relationship. The answer, of course, is entirely up to the playwright and his options abound. He can choose to provide us with a clear resolution or offer clues that hint at one. He may even prefer to invite his audience to make up their own minds on the subject. Sorry, folks, the rules of the writing game forbid me from giving you a plot spoiler.
Since the play has a shorter running time than most SCT offerings, it has no intermission. But theatregoers who wish to brace themselves for what’s coming their way in “Gruesome Playground Injuries” can do so prior to the play at the lobby’s refreshment stand where the theatre’s custom is to offer a concoction keyed to the production. This time, It’s a mixture of bourbon, spiced rum, apple cider and white cranberry juice, topped with ginger ale. It has no name other than “spiced cider,” which seems a bit of a creative lapse. Why not give the generic cider a personal connection to the play by calling it “Kayleen’s Consolation Cocktail” or “Doug’s Non-Accidental Refreshment”?
Not that Kayleen always offers consolation when Doug needs it, or that accident-prone Doug can summon a level of maturity Kayleen needs to deal with her own problems. But the performances of the two gifted actors who portray our troubled couple are more than worthy of a salute when you realize what a stretch of talent is required on their part to enact the roles of playful children, sassy teens and anxious adults.
Here, then, is a post-curtain toast to you, Dani and Noah, with thanks for bringing Doug and Kayleen to life.
And let’s add a second toast to the Carruesco family, whose sponsorship made this captivating production possible for all of us to enjoy despite the bumps, bruises, bandages, bellyaches and bantering of its protagonists.
A retired reporter and editor, Stockton resident Howard Lachtman has written Delta-centered detective stories, Stockton Civic Theatre reviews and a variety of baseball tales for Soundings. In 2006. he was honored by the Stockton Arts Commission for “24 years of superior review and commentary on the performing and literary arts in Stockton.”