Two fine, local actors whose talents have brightened many plays in recent years again confirm their appeal. Erika Cuenca and Tony Bingham fill the stage with warmth, depth and truth. At Off the Wall Productions, superbly guided by director Maggie Balsley, they are the cast in the unfortunately-named Gruesome Playground Injuries by awarded and much-admired Rajiv Joseph.
In choosing this play at this time of year, Off the Wall continues to confirm its name. But don’t let the title put you off, making you expect violence or nastiness as if part of some current anti-traditional trend. Do not anticipate slashing satire or brutal irony either. This gentle, sometimes sweet play doesn’t explore the unrelenting intensity we’ve witnessed this month in two local theatre productions with no obvious relation to holiday themes, Angels in America at CMU and The Crucible at Point Park Conservatory. The compelling, vivid experiences made them worth your time and attention. This matches those others when it comes to the acting and staging, even if the writing and invention do not equal Tony Kushner’s and Arthur Miller’s.
Joseph’s 2009 script comes up with a well-made character study, enriched by perceptive choices of how to present it. He delves into the lives of two wounded people who yearn to merge into one whole relationship. Imaginatively, their fractured existence is seen in 30 years worth of non-linear fragments. This is not to say that this is some kind of puzzle which you must piece together. It is always clear what has been happening to Kayleen and Doug, whose backgrounds and ideas remain simple and not thoroughly defined. Despite those limitations, they remain interesting people.
Doug is accident-prone, risking injuries in all kinds of goofy adventures from age 8 to 38. Kayleen wants to understand, even to help heal. But she has agonies of her own, physical results of emotional wounds. As they stumble into and out of each others lives, they keep getting drawn back to each other as if their spilled blood can transfuse into something healthier.
Cuenca and Bingham’s naturalness make both characters always loveable. They create especially amusing portraits of Kayleen and Doug at age 8 when they first encounter each other in a small town hospital where they will cross paths again in later life.
They and director Balsley play each scene with well-paced time for reflection and reaction, making the non-verbal moments always meaningful. They confirm that these people don’t know what they are doing and haven’t the ability to articulate complexities.
The production is full of physical business, with much time and attention given to intermittent costume changes, hair and make-up alterations. It’s possible that this is a device to create distance from the characters, to remind us that this is theatre, akin to Tony Kushner’s Brecht-like choices. Or it could imply a kind of intimacy. In any case the acting keeps us coming back to connecting with these people, as if we want to hold and comfort them. The performances make that so.
Gruesome Playground Injuries continues through December 29th at Off The Wall Productions 25 W. Main Street Carnegie, PA -1-888/ 71-TICKETS or 1-888/718 4253 –www.showclix.com (FYI :there are $5 student tickets)-www.insideoffthewall.com 724/ 873-3576.