Vulnerability Is Key To ‘Gruesome Playground Injuries’ In St. Louis

 In Culture, Feature

“Gruesome Playground Injuries” starts out with two eight-year-old children and follows them for three decades as they’re made intimate by outrageous injuries to body and soul. It’s funny and even terribly sad, and it’s therefore everything you want from someone else’s torrid story of romance.

Rajiv Joseph’s 90-minute comedy premiered in 2009 and flashes back and forth in time through the relationship. Romance gets as bashed-up as these on-and-off lovers — Kayleen grows up to be a waitress while Doug is less stable — but they are, at least, reunited every few years, whether in the school nurse’s office, hospitals or emergency rooms.

It’s a heart-grabbing show under the direction of Jamie McKittrick, with Pete Winfrey as Doug and Erin Renee Roberts as Kayleen. And whether Doug is seeking attention by riding his bike off a Catholic grade school roof or boasting about it later to Kayleen, their funny, crazy relationship is framed for eternity in bruises and bandages.

Kayleen’s various injuries are mostly stress-related and sometimes caused by Doug. He tries to impress her with his daring acts as they both recover as children and regales her with a tale of taking an ice skate to the face. She is, of course, appalled.

Likewise, I was appalled by the play’s first scene change, after that scene in the school nurse’s office — it took five minutes. One performer must silently alter their make-up entirely — on stage — and change costume too while we wait. But gradually it dawned on me: just as an actor may dote on getting the character right, this particular character is also just as devoted to his own scars, as if he were a great warrior, here in the service economy. The slow change in the “crash” make-up is as much a part of the character as anything he says or does. It may be even more integral in a story like “Gruesome.”

And in spite of Kayleen’s jangled nerves, Doug doesn’t give up. We skip back and forth through their relationship, gradually learning that he’s outraged and then comforting after Kayleen’s first sexual encounter has gone all wrong. Elsewhere, we learn that she’s magically healed him from a coma.

It’s all about risk-taking and being vulnerable. But these words are made flesh in this one-of-a-kind relationship.

“Gruesome Playground Injuries” runs through November 20, at 3617 Texas Ave., south of Cherokee and Jefferson. Ticket information is available on Facebook.

Featured photo of Erin Renee Roberts and Pete Winfrey by Andy Paulissen.


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