In Lindsey Ferrentino’s “Ugly Lies the Bone,” a soldier disfigured by war comes home to a horror as perilous as the minefields of Afghanistan.
A haunting meditation on bravery and cowardice, love and loss, pain and healing, fantasy and reality, the play — which opened the Alliance Theatre’s Hertz Stage season Wednesday night — is a deeply visceral, deeply affecting work of art.
Ferrentino, a two-time finalist for the coveted Alliance/Kendeda National Graduate Playwriting Competition, has delivered a blistering story, directed here by Jessica Holt and beautifully performed by a top-notch company.
Though we can only guess what ravaged Jess’ face, leaving her nearly unrecognizable and in crippling pain, the agony of her domestic situation is clear.
Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Jess (Julie Jesneck) tries to re-enter the home front by undergoing a type of virtual-reality therapy that allows her to construct a paradise of her own making. With a little help from her older sister, Kacie (Wendy Melkonian), Jess imagines a shimmering forest of evergreens blanketed in snow, then slowly goes about shoveling a path through the heartbreak.
The family lives in Titusville, Fla., home of NASA’s space shuttle program, which is in its waning days. As filtered through the eyes of Jess, it’s a grim, frustrating and frequently comic scenario, bristling with lethal language and the potential for violence.
Despite her war injuries, Jess wants to work. Compared to Kacie’s boyfriend, Kelvin (Hugh Adams), who collects disability and tries to get her a job at a pizza joint, this makes her look downright heroic.
Meanwhile, Jess reconnects with her old love interest, Stevie (Lee Osorio), now married and working as a gas-station attendant. Kacie takes care of the sisters’ aging mother (Megan McFarland), who suffers from dementia and lives in a home.
The moments when the caustic Jess confronts Kelvin are superbly entertaining, and a tad menacing at times.
Even with half a face, Jesneck is more expressive than your average performer. Her Jess grimaces in pain and yearns for Stevie’s affection. She mocks Kelvin — his name, his facial hair, his “Capri pants” — with her best Paula Poundstone voice and most withering looks.
Kelvin (played to hilariously grotesque effect by the rubber-faced Adams) just can’t understand why Jess is so snarky. “I drive. I cook. I’m not on Viagra,” he says. “I’m a catch, OK?”
Jess’ selfishness takes its toll on the other characters, particularly her sister. (The scene in which Osorio’s awkwardly adorable Stevie professes his inability to act on his love for Jess is achingly tender.)
As lovely as the play is, there are a few trouble spots. The interaction between Jess and the robotic voice of her virtual-reality therapist (McFarland) can be tedious. And why anyone with PTSD would watch a space shuttle takeoff is baffling (Boom!).
But the very setting, as well as the winter wonderland that Jess summons via her therapy, allow the design team of Alexander Woodward (sets) and Liz Lee (lighting) to do wondrous things. Sydney Roberts’ costumes aren’t bad either. (She has special fun with Kelvin’s tacky get-ups.)
Ultimately, “Ugly Lies the Bone” is about letting go of the things that hurt us. At the end of a long journey, the space shuttle comes home for the last time, and we begin to see glimmers of light.
“Ugly Lies the Bone”
Through Oct. 9. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays; 7:30 p.m. Sundays. (No 7:30 p.m. performance Oct. 2). $20-$35. Alliance Theatre, Hertz Stage, 1280 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta. 404-733-5000, alliancetheatre.org.
Bottom line: When war comes home.