Love Hurts: “Gruesome Playground Injuries” at Action/Adventure

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By Leela Ginelle, PQ Monthly

We first see Kaylene (Tabitha Trosen) and Doug (Jim Vadala) at age 8 in the health room of their Catholic elementary school. She has chronic stomach pains and he’s ridden his bike off the roof. It’s a fun scene that sets up the deeper themes running through Rajiv Joseph’s Gruesome Playground Injuries (at Action/Adventure through August 15).

This clever, moving play follows the two, hopping back and forth in time throughout the next 30 years, as their respective wounds, and mutual abilities to comfort and care for each other, both attract and repel them.

At first Kaylene comes off as the centered, responsible one. Though she occasionally describes herself as a mess, and alludes to drinking and smoking habits, Trosen plays her as a tightly wound, Type A stress case. It’s a great performance that produces many memorable moments, such as Kaylene’s brief attempt at rhythm in the health room during an eighth grade dance, as well as more poignant ones later. Doug, meanwhile, appears to be a lovable wreck—a classic ADD jock, with a charming self-deprecating streak. Vadala is perfectly cast. His openness and charisma provide the perfect match to Trosen’s angst, and make Doug’s blowing his eye out with a firework on the night of Kaylene’s father’s funeral intriguing, rather than off-puttingly pathological.

As the show continues, more layers of the two’s lives are revealed, and the mystery of why they see each other so rarely—when they appear to share such a deep connection—is answered. In an achingly powerful scene in Kayleen’s bedroom, when the two are 18, we learn how painful Kayleen’s life is, and also learn that unlike Doug, whose wounds the world observes, she shares hers only with him. Trosen’s and Vadala’s performances are brave and raw in these moments, conveying worlds of emotion in the Action/Adventure theater’s intimate space.

Director Scott Yarbrough’s staging is dynamic. The play’s eight scenes are broken up with interludes where we see the actors change wardrobe (and wound makeup) onstage, helping one another and bouncing with upbeat energy. These segues are scored with ’90s alt rock songs that, personally, spun me into Gen X nostalgia bliss.

Tyler Buswell’s set design is ingenious, and Drammy worthy. His indescribable contraption made up of panels, curtains, and beds transformed so completely, and so often, into different settings that, by the end, one was riveted during the set changes wondering just what would appear next.

As the show goes on, we see how isolated Kayleen has become, reaching out to Doug seemingly only when he’s comatose. In turning away from her family to escape her pain, she shuts out her entire past, both blaming Doug for leaving her alone and spurning him when he arrives. The corresponding switch in Doug’s profile, from ungrounded catastrophe to aspiring family guy, feels a little jarring. Likewise, seeing the characters only once every five years, and often during health room or hospital visits, prevents the audience from gaining a sense of their lives’ rhythms.

That said, the play’s central theme is fascinating. The idea that Kayleen and Doug, by routinely encountering one another in their most pained, vulnerable moments—and sharing with each other what they tell no one else—creates a bond so charged and vivid it’s both unbearable and dangerously attractive. Joseph’s structure is smart, engineering unpredictable ways to drop in on the pair, while incrementally shading in the sadder parts of their stories.

Gruesome Playground Injuries by Rajiv Joseph runs through August 15 at Action/Adventure (1050 SE Clinton).