In the Roundabout Theatre‘s Ugly Lies the Bone a war veteran, Jess (Mamie Gummer), uses virtual reality therapy to recover from trauma and to manage her residual physical and emotional pain. In the process Jess leans on her older sister Kacie (Karron Graves), takes her anger out on her sister’s boyfriend Kelvin (Haynes Thigpen), searches for recollection of her beauty from a past flame Stevie (Chris Stack), and yearns for love from her aging mother (Caitlin O’Connell). Jess’ search for love and recollection of her former beauty is a heart-breaking task given the fact that she has become unrecognizable and is covered in physical scars from battle.
This play about the resilient relationship that is ‘sisterhood’ inevitably had me pondering. All of my siblings would agree that we have the ultimate big sister. A ten-year gap in age difference resulted in her taking me under her wing quite a lot. To the effect that when she first trekked off to university and left this kid sister behind… I wrote my very first poem. (It was also the first delightful time I can recollect being able to shock and dismay my parents with an inner life behind my pig-tailed, doll-like exterior – muhahahaha!). The simple sentiment was written:
My sister Jenn has gone away and I feel like a flower dying.
I didn’t think much about the poem until recently although Jenn has it tucked away in some cupboard somewhere. I’ve since had ample opportunity to experience leaving my family to pursue my own dreams. Luckily my sister is so busy with her own children now that, save a few tears at the airport, there are no more depressing poems about parting. However, my life has a funny way of letting the meaning of my relationships sink in casually and intermittingly. I get caught up in the moments and sifting through the meaning of life’s moments tends to happen on nights like tonight. Tonight the meaning of sisterhood sunk in by virtue of watching a play about what & who helps a woman recover from pain and trauma.
Life can be quite painful at times and even normal occurrences, like parting with a sister from time to time, can produce poems and images of a six year old drooping over ‘like a flower dying’. In this play Jess’ pain is not only internal, but severely visible on the outside… all the time. The struggle to stand on one’s own becomes physicalized in Jess’ struggle to recover. I saw the right side of her body crumple inwards leaving the left side to pick up all the slack. This play begs the question if learning to stand on one’s own is a necessary skill – or if finding life’s compensation, like somebody to lean on, is actually more important?
In watching Jess’ physical beauty stripped from her due to skin burns I was forced to reconstruct my idea of the relationship between ‘ugly’ and ‘beauty’. The core of Jess’ humanity surfaced in a way that it might not have had she continued to stand on her own in her previously ‘beautiful’ state. The fading of her physical beauty forced her to face her fear and discover that the people she loved most in the world remember her for her true beauty. The letting go of her anger opens her up to the imperfect love that her sister and friends still have to offer. Leave it to Meryl Streep’s daughter (Gummer) to bring great vulnerability to a role such that I reflected on my own relationships and truly appreciate them. She contributed to a lifelong journey of mine to deconstruct the relationship between beautiful & ugly, dark & light, new & old, beginning & ending.
At times – and often in beginnings – we love the beauty that covers up the ugly, but at other times life asks us to love the ugly as it covers up true beauty – especially as we get closer and closer to endings.
Beauty is but skin deep, ugly lies the bone.
Beauty dies and fades away, but ugly holds its own.
By the way – now I feel like a flower thriving: