The anguished legacy of familial abuse — physical, emotional, sexual — is teeth-gnashingly explored in Dael Orlandersmith’s “Bones.” Black drapes and flattage have transformed the capacious Kirk Douglas Theater into a 95-seat hothouse, just as Orlandersmith and helmer Gordon Edelstein block off and matte their characters to display only their psychosexual tensions. The pain on that stage never lets up.
Thirtyish Leah (Tessa Auberjonois) has summoned fraternal twin Steven (Tory Kittles) and alcoholic mother Claire (Khandi Alexander) to an airport hotel room, re-created by Takeshi Kata with enough photorealism to prompt a search for a stripped Holiday Inn somewhere. Leah demands they sort out her tortured memories and take responsibility for the same, particularly in terms of the twins’ father, who never married their mother but popped in to commit occasional atrocities in bedroom, bath and kitchen.
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That’s “Bones” on a superficial, naturalistic level. Yet the door-shaped hole cut into the crazily tilted ceiling signals symbolism and disturbance afoot.
As cast by Edelstein, Steven is black and twice the size of white Leah, their (unmentioned) physical differences telegraphing their profound disconnection. The cast indulges in “Strange Interlude” overheard monologues, then incantatory reminiscences verging on song whose temperature starts high and stays that way. Live jazz accompaniment at first sets a reflective, wary mood, then turns discordant to finally work on us like chalk against a blackboard.
In this version of family horror, sound and smell resonate in the victim when reality proves too much to bear. Pop hits like “Band of Gold” and “Like a Rolling Stone” are tied to memories of drunken beatings, and Leah is given to intoned cries for release: “The Scotch that came out of her pores/drunken bitch/smelly bitch….the stale cigarette smoke/the sex/can you smell the sex.”
With the thesps offered few opportunities for direct address/response, their oratorical mode creates a genuine sense of assault long before the play is half over. Having 16 more years of alcoholic lubrication under her belt, Alexander’s Claire is able to bring in the most humor and physical ease, enabling the actress to make the strongest impression as she laughs and prowls her terrain, catlike.
Then again, maybe that’s part of the point. Now a financier and gym power lifter, Kittles’ Steven has clearly garnered from that accursed kitchen a twisted lust for power boding ill for the women in his life.
And Auberjonois balances Leah’s fragile defensiveness with sure indications of a deeper spiral into alcoholism and self-hatred.
Yet Claire’s humanity remains, in her own mind at least: “Goodness is in me….I feel it in my bones.” Perhaps the ultimate tragedy is the predator’s ability to exist above the disease while the victims sicken and die from it.