‘Ugly Lies the Bone’ explores trauma and humanity through theater

Students perform in Ugly Lies the Bone. Photo by Lucy Wimmer (C’20).

By Lucy Wimmer
Contributing Writer

Her face and neck covered in makeup disguised as burn scars, Vanessa Moss (C’20) walked slowly, seemingly painfully down the slanted stage, her shaking hands wrapped around a walker and a dangling virtual reality headset. Moss played the role of Jess, a woman coming to terms with post-war trauma and a changing hometown, in this production of Ugly Lies the Bone. The play explores the relationships between family, friends, people, and places in the aftermath of deployment. When Jess returns from Afghanistan to Florida, she must deal with her physical and emotional trauma, as well as a hometown that has become unrecognizable. 

“The play is very character-driven, so it hinged upon each individual’s performance,” said audience member Emma Zeitler (C’20). The story is a study in humanity; every character is dealing with change in different, sometimes painful, other times tender, ways. “The actors delivered their characters so well,” Zeitler said, “It kept me captivated.”

Despite the elements of comic relief sprinkled throughout the play, a story based around trauma is difficult subject matter. “It is a lot to ask of an audience,” said Jackson Harwell (C’22), who played a character whose role was at once comedic and challenging. The audience stayed engaged through the layers of emotions brought by the actors. 

“The characters demonstrated emotion effectively and offered a thought-provoking performance,” remarked Erin Dockery (C’20). “The way Vanessa demonstrated pain, physically and emotionally, was really powerful. Everything from her walk, body language, the things she said, made me think about the impacts of war. I also loved that she was a woman. I think our typical idea of a soldier is a man.”

The work also explored the place technology has in the healing process, and the use of virtual reality as a healing tool. Jess attends therapy that approaches dealing with physical pain through a virtual reality experience. In an author’s note, the playwright Lindsey Ferrentino states, “this play was inspired by a real video game therapy called ‘Snow World’ currently being used to treat burn survivor veterans, living in a state of perpetual pain.” 

The lighting and sound design, along with Moss’ physical acting, allowed the audience to be a part of the world created through virtual reality. “The mingling of technology and history was great,” Dockery said. The lighting and sound design made real everything the characters, in particular, Jess, were feeling and experiencing. 

The production allowed the audience to not only see the ways trauma affects relationships, but to also look inside of the mind of Jess, and to see the ways trauma manifests internally. The stage crew dressed in military uniforms, and the set design reflected both a home and a military bunker. These elements of a war zone woven into the landscape of a hometown reflected the inescapable effects of trauma, and the ways trauma can alter a mental landscape. 

“This show has been the most challenging and gratifying in my life,” Moss said. “I wanted to play the part of Jess and really do her justice, to pay respect to the unseen terrors that PTSD plays in the lives of veterans around the country.”

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